Make the bastards work for their fillibusters
Posted on Wednesday, January 2, 2008
Nobody asked, but if I were a congressional Democrat, I’d have two New
Year’s resolutions. One: No more Mr. Bipartisan Nice Guy. Two: Less
substance, more political theater. If you haven’t noticed, 2008 is an
election year. Also, Democrats hold small majorities in both houses.
Hence, mewling cries are being heard that ugly partisan wrangling is
preventing Americans from joining together in one big joyous hootenanny
and solving our problems. One Democratic presidential candidate,
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, appears to be basing his campaign on this
fond delusion, although his “bipartisanship” consists largely of
attacking rivals’ motives while recycling right-wing scare stories like
the imaginary Social Security crisis, then offering himself as a healer.
It’s the old Adlai Stevenson/Jimmy Carter too pure-for-politics pose.
Hearing it from a career Chicago politician may be a bit much, but
there’s always an audience for sentimentality.
But the most insistent proponents of mushmelon bipartisanship are
pundits like The Washington Post’s David Broder, forever cautioning
Democrats about the political perils of not giving President Bush
whatever he wants. “The Dean” recently cautioned House Speaker Nancy
Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that “public approval
ratings for Congress have sunk below their level when Republicans were
still in control,” warning that “in less than a year, the voters will
deliver their own verdict.”
Now as even Broder concedes, Democrats in Congress are measurably more
popular than Republicans (40 percent favorable to 32 percent ). They
also exceed Bush’s favorability ratings, which remain near rock-bottom.
Diehard GOP partisans aside, most Americans have basically given up on
this White House and are simply waiting for Bush to go away.
Polls also show that on most critical issues—Iraq, health care, energy
policy—healthy majorities favor Democratic solutions. To the extent that
congressional Democrats are unpopular, it’s mainly their failure to end
the Iraq war. It’s become common to hear denunciations of Democratic
“cowardice” on the issue.
Call me jaded, but my attitude can best be summarized by something the
late Sen. Bobby Kennedy told a friend of mine: “You don’t have to be a
genius to succeed in politics, but you do have to be able to count.”
The reason congressional Democrats haven’t ended the war is that Bush
won’t budge and they simply can’t make him. He plans to pass the whole
mess on to his successor along with (he hopes) the blame for whatever
disasters follow U.S. withdrawal. Alas, getting out of Baghdad won’t be
as simple as issuing 150,000 airline tickets. Pulling the plug on war
funding has melodramatic appeal, but it wouldn’t be a real-world option
even if the Democratic leadership had the votes, which they manifestly
That’s true on a whole host of issues. Senate Democrats not only can’t
muster the two-thirds vote needed to override presidential vetoes, they
often can’t generate the 60 votes needed to bring issues to a vote. It’s
a fact that Washington journalists appear oddly loath to share with the
The word “filibuster” doesn’t appear in Broder’s column. Yet according
to a report by the Campaign for America’s Future, Senate Republicans
have already broken the single-term historical record for blocking the
most legislation, and the session’s not half over.
Remember the so-called Nuclear Option? The phrase was Republican Sen.
Trent Lott’s. Holding a 55-44 majority in 2005, Republicans were unable
to invoke cloture, i.e., muster the 60 votes needed to force up or down
votes on a handful of Bush’s crackpot judicial appointments. This they
denounced as an insult to Dear Leader and an affront to democracy. They
floated a plan to change Senate rules allowing unlimited debate until
the bipartisan Gang of 14 senators came up with a compromise in which
Democrats promised to filibuster very rarely.
With Democrats now holding a narrow 50-49 Senate majority, Lott’s
attitude has changed.
“The strategy of being obstructionist can work or fail,” he chuckles,
“... and so far it’s working for us.”
According to the Campaign for America’s Future, the Republican minority
has blocked 63 pieces of legislation out of existence.
“That’s like breaking the single season home-run record before the
All-Star break,” comments Steve Benen on his carpetbaggerreport.com
weblog. Among them were bills not only aimed at ending the U.S.
occupation of Iraq, but extending health insurance to millions of
children, empowering Medicare to bargain for lower drug prices and
repealing the ban on embryonic stem-cell research. Yet voters don’t know
it, partly because the media have all but quit using the word
“filibuster.” Also because Reid, whether for reasons of comity or
efficiency, routinely invokes cloture votes that let the GOP minority
win without a struggle. Well, enough responsibility. They want to
filibuster? Fine. Make them put on a show. Let Republicans talk all they
want about the evils of children’s health insurance. Voters always claim
they want solemn debate, but what gets their attention is cheap theater.
•–––––—Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a Little Rock author and
recipient of the National Magazine Award.