Monday, March 2, 2009

Talk talk talk talk ...

President Obama and his Democratic Party have an ambitious agenda. After eight years of a Republican presidency, and shortly after a period of 12 years of almost uninterrupted Republican control of Congress ended, they have their best opportunity in many years to realize their goals.

Congressional Democrats have stayed pretty well united in the votes that have been taken so far. They have a large majority in the House, so the handful of Democrats in that body who have opposed Obama on some votes have not derailed his agenda.

They also have a large majority in the Senate but, of course, the game is played differently over there. These circumstances have focused renewed attention on that long-standing Senate tradition: the filibuster. Two articles published on the website of The New York Times over the past few hours, are part of that discussion.

In the 100 Days blog, Jean Edward Smith provides a good history of filibusters, and decries the increasing frequency of the use of that delaying tactic.

Meanwhile, on the Op-Ed page, David RePass describes how the changed nature of filibusters has contributed toward that trend.

Smith argues that the change to direct election of senators, which began with the 1914 election, did away with the distinctive nature of the Senate. Therefore, he sees no continuing rationale for obstructing majority rule. However, the "one person, one vote" standard that Smith mentions, still does not apply to the Senate, whose members are not apportioned according to population. One might argue that that aspect alone gives sufficient protection to minority opinion, but Smith seems to want to go well beyond that position and, it seems to me, he ends up out on a limb.

But aside from any abstract arguments about democracy and representative government, it will always be true that most of those opposing the filibuster at any point in time will be those who support the party that currently holds a majority in the Senate.

Democrats, who want to enact Obama's legislative agenda, raise arguments about the undemocratic nature of the filibuster, even though they used it between 2003 and 2006, when Republicans controlled the Senate. And, of course, vice versa with Republicans.

If Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is reluctant to push as hard against Republican filibuster threats as Professor RePass would like, that may be because Reid is mindful of one iron rule of politics. I have no idea whether Reid listens to '60s rock but, if so, he could take his cue from Blood, Sweat and Tears: "What goes up must come down. Spinning wheel got to go round."

The next time the wheel spins, and the Democrats are back in the minority, they will rue any precedents that had weakened the rights of the minority party.

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