From left: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) at a news conference on a change to Senate filibuster rules on Capitol Hill in Washington, Nov. 21, 2013. The Senate voted on Thursday to eliminate the use of the blocking tactic against most presidential nominees, a move that will fundamentally alter the way the Senate functions. (Gabriella Demczuk/The New York Times)
“What kind of government have you given us?” asked a woman outside the Constitutional Convention of 1787. “A republic, madam, if you can keep it,” replied Benjamin Franklin.
It is hard to say what’s more disturbing. The grotesque Democratic power play in ending the Senate filibuster, or the public’s complacency in going along with it. Either way, we are witness to the undoing of a sacred Senate tradition, which over the course of two centuries helped to separate the American experiment from mob rule.
Egged on by a lame-duck president whose second term legislative agenda is justifiably threatened by the legacy of the first, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid invoked the “nuclear option” last month, shamelessly allowing President Obama to retain his regulatory influence by ramming through executive branch appointments and judicial confirmations with a simple majority vote.
In doing so, the majority is counting on very short memories (given the long list of Republican nominees “victimized” by Democratic filibusters of years past). Recall the junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, in 2005: “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.”
This is blinding hypocrisy.
Never mind that the GOP had its own filibuster complaints, even threats, back then — it was this out-of-control Senate leadership that actually voted to end the 60-vote supermajority requirement so much a part of the founders’ wisdom.
You see, the framers did not wish to trade the tyranny of the monarchy for the “tyranny of the majority.” The Constitution, while not mentioning the filibuster itself, contains five explicit provisions for Senate supermajorities. Indeed, the Senate owes its very existence to the notion that government action required much more than a slim majority vote — it requires a consensus. That’s why there are two senators allotted per each state, regardless of population. And why, up until 1913, senators were chosen through state legislatures and not by direct vote.
None other than James Madison, the putative father of the Constitution, was quite wary of simple majorities, writing “that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths …”
So when Vice President Joe Biden lashed out at the Senate rules, suggesting that “no democracy has survived needing a supermajority,” he betrayed a startling ignorance of our nation’s history as a republic, not to mention the filibuster itself. In fact, prior to 1917, there was no such thing as “cloture,” or the ability to end debate with even a supermajority vote.
The intent of those closest to the founding was that there be no provision for cutting off such “filibusters.” The Senate was where mistakes went to die.
Considering that the obviously deficient Affordable Care Act passed with the bare minimum of 60 votes (see Al Franken), perhaps we should be contemplating a return to a two-thirds majority vote for “cloture” in the Senate, eh?
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with requiring individual senators to once again actually speak and hold the floor when filibustering, but the last thing a closely divided country needs is for the next piece of social engineering to pass with a mere 51 votes. And eliminating the filibuster for liberal legislation is no doubt next on the agenda.
Article II, Section 2 requires the “advice and consent” of the Senate for a reason. It is but one part of the checks and balances that constitute this republic of ours. A “filtered” majority, refined with representation and constrained by a constitutional separation of powers, including divided sovereignty between federal and state governments, is the only safeguard for liberty.
Jason Lewis is a nationally syndicated talk show host based in Minneapolis-St. Paul and the author of “Power Divided is Power Checked: The Argument for States’ Rights” from Bascom Hill Publishing. He can be heard locally from 5 to 8 p.m. on NewsTalk AM1130 and on jasonlewisshow.com.
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