Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Monday, November 26, 2012

Senate filibusters, mediocre politicians, and the people’s rights

Unless they lose their nerve, the majority in the US Senate is going to use its majority to trim back the filibuster—the ability of the Senate minority to prevent the Senate from debating and declaring itself on legislation and even significant executive appointments. Smart liberals, smart conservatives, and ordinary patriots should bolster their courage.

The filibuster, which today doesn’t even require the filibustering Senator to be present in the Senate, has recently helped make Washington government about as predictable, transparent, and reliable as government in Beijing and Moscow.   

Politico is reporting that Senate Republican elders are already preparing to hit the mattresses to save the status quo.

“Republicans say eliminating filibusters — even on a piecemeal basis — will undermine the fundamental underpinnings of the Senate as a body designed to operate on consensus and protect the minority party, making the body run like the House, where the majority rules with an iron fist.”

Altering the rules in US democracy is never undertaken lightly, and trimming the Senate filibuster, if finally undertaken, will be preceded by extensive debate. The outcome will likely be a compromise. However, the virtues of compromise itself, along with prudence and respect for minorities, are not really at stake.

It’s self-aggrandizing mischief to suggest that the US Senate must operate by consensus and, at the end of the day, only act with the consent of a super-majority 60 Senators. If the world believed that unanimity determined the limits of federal action in the United States, the US wouldn’t be a serious superpower.

A cabal is run by consensus. Democratic federations employ numerous institutions governed by winning majorities, which are disciplined by independent courts, a free press, ambitious losers, and an informed free electorate. There are powerful checks and balances; iron fists are for the movies.

The founding fathers gave senators six-year terms verses two-year terms between elections in order to give Senators greater distance from intemperate sentiments that might arise in the country. They weren’t given the time, however, to better know each other and master the Senate’s exotic culture—and they were not obliged to use super majorities to get things done.

In practical terms, the ability to block almost anything, as a matter of easy, partisan routine, protects mediocrity as well as extremism. By making compromise unnecessary for minorities, it makes the hunt for compromise by moderate presidents and Senate majorities often futile.

In Canada, for instance, we only finally got our Constitution amended, with a Charter of Rights, when a majority Parliament broke a half-century convention to act only when there was unanimous agreement.

Majorities can be dangerous, particularly the giant bipartisan ones that are inspired by emergencies. However, democratic government’s principle business is not grinding down the will of the majority. Indeed, the pursuit of a working majority by the losers and the preservation of today’s majority by the winners are the imperatives that assure enough change to meet nationwide challengeswithout tearing the nation apart.

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