Paul Greenberg

Now only a simple majority, simple in more ways than one, has replaced a complex, time-woven rule in a single day, wiping out a whole body of parliamentary procedure and its long history of uses and abuses. The filibuster had been employed for causes both noble and not noble at all in its long and tortuous history. Now it has disappeared in a blinding flash. No wonder they called ending the filibuster The Nuclear Option, for it destroys everything in its indiscriminate range. And rage.

It seems a Republican minority in the current Senate wouldn't go along with a slate of nominees to high office that the president insisted on, and so a small but willful majority just did away with the right to extended debate. The once customary 60-vote majority required to limit debate was replaced by a simple majority. Hesto Presto, it was gone.

The stage has now been set for other storied institutions of American politics to follow the filibuster into oblivion. Why not? A president who can change the law after it has passed (see the ever fluid terms of Obamacare) had no problem with changing the nature of the Senate of the United States, too.

Yes, the storied tradition of the filibuster had its dark -- even evil -- side, as when it was routinely used by the Fulbrights and Eastlands of the Senate to block civil-rights legislation. But the filibuster also had its great moments. As when Huey Long used it against FDR's attempt to resurrect his National Recovery Act after the Supreme Court had unanimously -- and courageously -- overthrown it. (What a pity today's court missed its chance to spare the country Obamacare, another attempt to regiment a huge part of the country's economy and life.)

Many a scholarly defense of the filibuster has been delivered over the years, including this one by a long-time aide to various Democratic senators. Richard Arenberg covered just about all the bases when he summed up the once indispensable place of the filibuster in the U.S. Senate and in the whole American legislative scheme:

"The right in the Senate to debate and amend serves as a protection to the minority, fosters deliberation and compromise, discourages unchecked majority control, moderates extreme outcomes, avoids precipitous decision making, discourages domination by the more populous states, ensures the role of the legislative branch in oversight of the executive and assures the role of the Senate as a counterbalance to the majoritarian House of Representatives in our system of checks and balances."

One of the most prescient defenses of the filibuster over the years came from an eloquent young senator from Illinois back in 2005, when it was his party that was the one in the minority. It might be worth reviewing what he said on the occasion of this latest and signal defeat for free and unconstrained debate:

"While I have not been here too long," the freshman senator began, "I have noticed that partisan debate is sharp, and dissent is not always well received. Honest differences of opinion and principled compromise often seem to be the victim of a determination to score points against one's opponents. But the American people sent us here to be their voice. They understand that those voices can at times become loud and argumentative, but they also hope we can disagree without being disagreeable. At the end of the day, they expect both parties to work together to get the people's business done. What they do not expect is for one party, be it Republican or Democrat, to change the rules in the middle of the game so they can make all the decisions while the other party is told to sit down and keep quiet.

"The American people want less partisanship in this town, but everyone in this chamber knows that if the majority chooses to end the filibuster, if they choose to change the rules and put an end to democratic debate, then the fighting, the bitterness, and the gridlock will only get worse."

That was the view of a promising new member of the U.S. Senate back then named Barack Obama, but now that he's president, he no longer sounds as convincing on this topic. Or perhaps on any other. His words about the danger of gagging the minority may prove prophetic if this country ever has another Republican president and Congress. You can be sure they'll be as ruthless in discarding the rights of the minority as the Democrats have been.

That was a two-edged sword Democrats employed Thursday. And they may find out soon enough just how sharp it is.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.


 


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