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Busting filibusters

By Bruce Walker
web posted June 2, 2003

Democrats are relying on sleight of hand and dilatory tactics to stop Republicans from accomplishing anything. Texas Democrats abandon their offices to prevent legislation from passing. New Jersey Democrats replace a patently corrupt senator - one who these same Democrats had just nominated a few months earlier - with a stronger candidate, in defiance of the letter and the spirit of state law. And, of course, Senate Democrats filibuster at the drop of a hat.

The tax cut was a victory, but President should expect very few more such victories between now and November 2004. Moreover, if Democrats establish the precedent of stopping Republican initiatives with filibusters, then President Bush should not expect to be able to accomplish much in the first two years of his second term. If that happens, then Republicans may well face a midterm election in 2006 which will return Democrats to power.

President Bush and congressional Republicans should take the filibuster challenge head on. This is dangerous stuff, Democrats say. The truth is this: beware of Democrats bearing gifts (or free advice). What options do President Bush and Republican have on filibusters? Several, and each should be pursued.

President Bush has executed one of those options when he traveled to the home state of foot-dragging Democrats in conservative states and asking the voters to tell their senators to stop the nonsense. This has helped keep Senator Lincoln in Arkansas and Senator Nelson in Nebraska less hostile. A strong majority of states went for President Bush in 2000, and he will probably carry at least thirty-four states in 2004. Sixty-eight of the one hundred members of the Senate come from those thirty-four states..

Republicans in those states have other tools. The South Dakota state legislature passed a resolution in 2001 asking its two Democrat senators to support the president's tax cut. Daschle as Plurality Leader was able to protect Senator Johnson and himself from this manifestation of popular will, but many other Democrats do not have this clout.

What if the Wisconsin State legislature, controlled by Republicans, passed a resolution asking Senator Feingold not to join in any filibusters and citing the negative impact this was having on Wisconsin? Feingold is up for reelection in 2004, probably in a tough fight, and he could not simply ignore this.

There are several states in which Republicans could pass such resolutions - South Carolina, Florida, North Dakota, Michigan, Oregon. Such a resolution could not be vetoed, and if it included a recitation of all the specific damages found by the legislature as caused to the state, it could be a serious weapon.

States completely controlled by Republicans could get even more creative. How about enacting a statute allowing a plebiscite on the issue of filibustering in those states which Republicans control? What if Floridians, South Dakotans, North Dakotans and South Carolinians voted overwhelming in such a non-binding vote that their senators not filibuster? This would simply be a manifestation of popular will, but it would certainly make filibustering look bad.

What if the citizens of these and other conservative states voted to direct their senators to support a specific presidential initiative? Could these senators filibuster a bill whose specifics were overwhelmingly supported by the people of their home state?

Many states allow recall. Although no senators are as unpopular as Gray Davis, there are a number of states with liberal Democrat senators where President Bush is as popular as Davis is unpopular in California. It would only take one or two senators to face and to lose recall elections for other Democrat senators to get wobbly knees.

Conservatives should not ignore more aggressive tactics. Senate Democrats up for reelection in 2004 will first have to win their primary. Consider what might have happened if a conservative Democrat in New Jersey had run a campaign with serious conservative support against Torrecelli in 2002? That candidate would have weakened Torrecelli, but the conservative Democrat would have also made it very difficult for Democrats to pull the Lautenberg "switcheroo."

Why should Senate Democrats from states like South Carolina, North Carolina, Arkansas and South Dakota get free rides in their nomination? These incumbents not only do not represent the constituents of their states, but they do not even represent the sentiments of the average South Dakota or South Carolina Democrat.

When these Democrats say outrageous things about President Bush, why should some Democrat not say that these comments are not worthy of a loyal opposition? Zell Miller is immensely popular among Georgia Democrats.

What else might Republicans do? The change of rules proposed - the "nuclear" option - is one possible avenue, but another is to use the constitutional office which Dick Cheney holds as President of the Senate. If the President of the Senate announced that a roll call vote would begin on a particular issue, then what could Tom Daschle or any Democrat do?

Senate President Cheney could simply announce that one of the constitutional rights of his office, the office which the Electoral College gave him, is to preside and to take votes. If there is an obvious deadlock which prevents action, then Senate President Cheney should announce his interpretation of the Constitution as allowing him to entertain a call for a vote.

Like gerrymanders, which I discussed last week, filibusters are part of political trickery which has never been helpful to principled conservatives. Like gerrymanders, Republicans should not shrink for direct and open attacks on filibusters.

If Republicans do not, then Democrats will convince America that we do not know how to "run things" or "get things done." But if Republicans put Democrats directly on the defensive on these two issues of political connivance, then we will not only win the substantive battle, but the battle of perception as well.

Bruce Walker is a senior writer with Enter Stage Right. He is also a frequent contributor to The Pragmatist and The Common Conservative.

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