Suspend the Rules

There was a time when many in this country called for disciplined political parties in which the members marched in locked step and the voters could figure out who was doing what to whom. That was about responsible parties, not minority government. No one suggested that 41 senators had the right to block the efforts of 59.

But the Republicans have decided on a strategy of blocking everything the Democrats try to do, filibustering or threatening to filibuster all legislation, trying to force the Democrats to come up with the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster or give up the effort. The passage of the healthcare bill was a one-time strategy – the Senate had passed a bill when the Democrats had 60 votes. Now they have 59. And the Republicans smell blood.

In the Republican topsy turvy view of democracy that’s just fine as long as they are in the minority. When the tables were turned, they loudly condemned the Democrats’ effort to block appointment of conservative ideologues to judicial posts. Remember the so-called “nuclear option” in which the Senate Republicans threatened to break the use of the filibuster as a tool?

The Republicans in Congress have carried opposition to a new level. They have been glorying in being the “party of no.” It’s simple enough to identify the important issues on which they have been ambushing the American people: stimulating the economy, reforming banking, healthcare for children as well as comprehensive health care, extension of unemployment insurance, and approval of the many nominations for executive and judicial offices among many others.

The filibuster plays havoc with democracy by handing government over to minority rule. It may have played a useful role in a senate in which each senator was independent and senators could make individual decisions. Senatorial independence makes bipartisanship possible. And senatorial independence meant filibusters were not easy to sustain. In that context, filibusters can be a protection against abuse of minorities. But with disciplined parties, and filibusters used to block virtually all legislation, the filibuster becomes a way to bring government to its knees. It amounts to uncivil disobedience by elected officials.

The US is not continental Europe. We don’t have a parliament with a prime minister. We don’t have an electoral system that normally produces disciplined parties on the European model. And we don’t have legislative rules that are designed for that kind of legislative body.

The rules of the Senate are not in the Constitution. They are not in a statute. They are not enshrined on Mount Olympus. And they weren’t handed to Moses on Mount Sinai. The Senate can, and it should, suspend the rules and give the American people government by the majority which they were elected to do.

Anything less disrespects democracy. Democracy is supposed to be a system in which we respect each other’s views and in the vast majority of cases we agree to be bound by majority vote. At least that is what we keep telling each other. Politics isn’t war and any party that confuses the two is disloyal and should be treated accordingly.

This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 30, 2010.

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