Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Save the Filibuster

American politics is stupid, according to E.J. Dionne in his latest piece, In American politics, stupidity is the name of the game. “[I]t's so hard to get anything done in Washington”, he laments. The government’s power just can’t grow, and Americans’ freedoms just can’t shrink, fast enough for the Left. Why? It’s that “embarrassment to our democratic claims”, that stupid antiquated Senate.

Most of this particular piece is standard liberal boilerplate. Coming from E. J. Dionne, that is no surprise. But, embedded within his anti-rich rhetoric is another dangerous attack on the restraint of governmental power built into our nation by the Founders. Here are the essential statements:

Then there's the structure of our government. Does any other democracy have a powerful legislative branch as undemocratic as the U.S. Senate?

When our republic was created, the population ratio between the largest and smallest state was 13 to 1. Now, it's 68 to 1. Because of the abuse of the filibuster, 41 senators representing less than 11 percent of the nation's population can, in principle, block action supported by 59 senators representing more than 89 percent of our population. And you wonder why it's so hard to get anything done in Washington?

From a democratic (small “d”) perspective, Dionne is right. Democracy is unlimited majority rule. Any restraint on the legislature to “get anything done in Washington” is contrary to democratic principles.

But from a republican (small “r”) perspective, restraining “our power” - the power of the electoral majority – is exactly the point. The Founders’ intent was precisely to make the U.S. Senate “undemocratic”.

Removing all restrictions on the power of the electoral majority is fundamentally un-American. Originally, America was based upon the principles of a constitutionally limited republic. Individual rights was the limiting factor. A corollary to that was to limit the power of government. According smaller states disproportionately more Senate power was a means of restricting the concentration of power in any one political center. It’s called the “balance of power” or “checks and balances” and is crucial to the maintenance of a free society. The Electoral College is another bulwark between Washington and the popular majority. The senatorial safeguard was already watered down by the 17th Amendment, which stripped elected state legislatures of the power to appoint the senators by mandating that they be chosen by popular vote. (The House of Representatives was always chosen by direct popular vote.)

The political principles that served as America’s foundation are a very recent historical achievement. For the first time in history, men were set free of the rule of force and exploitation by other men, including by government officials. This enormous progress in human social organization is more than being repealed: It is being annihilated as if it never existed. Under the banner of progressivism, the enormous progress achieved during the 18th and 19th centuries is systematically being rolled back, right out in the open and in plain sight, but hidden behind the murky blur of a dangerous word. The regressive tool of the reactionaries is the pinning of the democracy label on America, a word that is rarely defined accurately. Politicians rolling unfettered over the people, seizing wealth, usurping individual freedoms, buying off special interest constituents with the loot - unconstrained by any moral principles - is what democracy amounts to.

Dionne wants to continue the piecemeal pattern of the past century or so of removing all restrictions on the power of any ballot box mob of the moment to crush the minority. This must be done in the name of moving America towards becoming a “serious democracy”. In the above quote, he attacks the two-senator-per-state arrangement, but doesn’t dare call for its elimination … yet. He merely sends up a trial balloon, for now.

For now, he’s content to settle for a smaller fish. The filibuster – “the abuse” that allows 41 senators to “block action supported by 59 senators” – must go. The elimination of the filibuster would be relatively innocuous if the principles of individual rights and a government constitutionally limited to protecting them were firmly in place. They are not. Those principles are largely forgotten or ignored as antiquated relics of an obsolete past. The remnants of our freedom are today held together only by the remnants of the original structural political safeguards such as the senatorial setup that Dionne attacks. The filibuster rule is another.

According to Senate rules, any Senator (or group of Senators) could speak on the floor without any time limitation. This is called “holding the Senate floor”. In practice, this allowed a minority to indefinitely hold up action on a bill that they didn’t like, often killing it. This minority tactic became known as the filibuster. About one hundred years ago, the Senate moved to limit the filibuster. The result was the “cloture” rule, under which a super majority of the Senate – today it is 60 votes – could end the filibuster and force a vote.

The super majority cloture rule has survived through both Democrat and Republican political dominance, most likely because each party feared that changing it to, say, a simple 51 vote majority would back-fire when it was out of power. Today, some on the Left such as E.J. Dionne want to do away with the super majority rule, in order to “get things done”, presumably meaning more statist “things”.

Considering today’s strong GOP tide heading into the fall elections, it might seem advantageous for the Right to support this change. But considering the philosophical disarray of today’s Republican Party, coupled with the strong overarching statist/socialist trend, any short-term gain the Right might achieve by the elimination (or watering down) of the filibuster rule will likely be washed away longer term. The philosophical education and base-building needed to take advantage of an easing of the cloture vote in order to truly roll back the welfare state is a long way from complete. Today’s GOP simply can not be trusted to get the right things done before the Left regains power (assuming they lose it this fall in the first place).

Save the filibuster rule. It’s at least a speed bump slowing the statist express.

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