Tuesday, May 03, 2005

The Arthur Dent Filibuster

I continue to believe that it would be best to set off the 'nuclear option' now, and get rid of the power to filibuster judicial nominations, a power so entrenched in history and tradition that it has never ever been used, not even once in all the years that it's been theoretically available. To those who say the Republicans should keep it because they might one day find it useful, I say:
  1. If they've never found a use for it in 200 years, why think they ever will?
  2. If there ever comes a time when there's a Democrat majority and president, and the president nominates someone so unacceptable to the minority (but acceptable to the majority) that they would consider trying a filibuster, do you really believe the Democrats won't immediately use this 'nuclear option' themselves? Do you think they'd hesitate a moment?
But there's a problem with normal filibusters too. Filibstering legislative proposals is an old Senate tradition, but it used to be quite rare, reserved for the most outrageous excesses of a majority gone wild. In the past 20 years or so it's become a weapon of choice for both sides, exercised several times a year by whoever happens to be in the minority. And the reason for this increase is obvious: no longer do filibusters involve actually speaking through the night, reading the phone book, or poetry, while resorting to extreme measures to keep the floor. That kind of filibuster has gone the way of cigar smoking and fist fights on the Senate floor.

Instead, we've got the Arthur Dent filibuster: the minority announces its intention to speak for as long as needed, and trots out 41 senators who will vote against cutting off the debate, and then suggests that since they are prepared to speak all night, and the majority is prepared to stay up and watch them, they don't need to actually do so; instead, they might as well both nick round to the local for a quick half. Or, in this case, pretend the debate is still going, and get on with the rest of the Senate's business. C-SPAN viewers see the usual sight of senators going about their business, while the filibuster with all its antics has been moved to Room 3B of Unseen University.

And so the filibuster has become cheap - the minority pays no price for using it, so why shouldn't it do so whenever it feels like it? I'm really surprised that it's been used so sparingly - logically every single bill should be filibustered, and there should at all times be 10 filibusters going on simultaneously, in Room 3B.

Getting rid of the Arthur Dent filibuster, returning to the old days when filibusters actually cost the minority, in personal comfort and in dignity, should mean that they'd return to being what they once were, a 'nuclear option' useful as a threat, but only actually fired very rarely, and with great reluctance.


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