The Art of the Filibuster

TRB

April 09, 1993|By TRB

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- When Bob Dole, the Senate minority leader, was successfully blocking Mr. Clinton's initial $16 billion ''stimulus'' package, I kept waiting for the expressions of disgust from my colleagues. None came. The predominant reaction seemed to be ''Hey, look at the Republicans, finally getting their act together.''

We here in the capital are easily bored. The ''Clinton juggernaut'' story was getting stale; the GOP revival offered a promising plot twist. Another part of the explanation is substantive: You didn't have to be a Republican to have doubts about the president's plan to spend $2.5 billion on various mayors' pet projects.

But there was also a misguided, insiders' sense of fairness at work. Yes, Mr. Clinton won the election, the argument seems to go. But it takes 60 votes to cut off debate in the Senate. If Senator Dole can muster all 43 Republicans to support a filibuster -- well, he has, as he put it, ''every right under the rules to prevent this bill from passing.'' The rules are the same for both sides.

But that doesn't mean the rules aren't crazy. There was a time not so long ago when this particular rule -- allowing a mere two-fifths of the Senate to prevent a vote -- was considered an especially controversial bit of anti-democracy.

Now would be a good moment to revive that sentiment, because Senator Dole's filibuster wasn't really about the ''stimulus'' package. It was about whether President Clinton can govern without continually appeasing the Republican minority. It may have been about whether President Clinton can govern, period.

The Founding Fathers didn't make governing easy. They created two elected branches of government and, within the legislative branch, two houses of Congress. This was an effective scheme for thwarting majority tyranny. It also created the likelihood of divided government -- ''gridlock.''

When Republicans controlled the White House, and Democrats controlled at least part of Congress, as occurred from 1981 to 1992, complaints about ''gridlock'' might be dismissed. Perhaps the voters were intentionally choosing inaction. But what if one party finally wins control of all three power centers, remains unified and still can't pass its program? Then, surely, it's time to -- start worrying.

It's bad enough that the Fathers stuck us with the malapportioned Senate in the first place. The reason Mr. Clinton had to abandon plans to raise fees for grazing and mining on federal lands is that Montana's 799,000 voters have as much power in the Senate as California's 30,000,000 voters. Do we really want a system in which a minority of an already-unrepresentative body can thwart a national majority?

The Constitution itself didn't require that the Senate adopt its wacky tradition of unlimited debate. As Steven Smith of the University of Minnesota points out, the tradition began more or less by accident. Senators originally could cut off debate, but found it rarely necessary. So when they wrote a new code of rules in 1806, the debate-ending provision was omitted on the grounds that it wasn't needed. Soon Senators were busy exploiting the obstructionist possibilities of the filibuster.

In 1917, the Senate adopted its infamous Rule 22, under which a two-thirds vote was required for the cloture motion to end a filibuster. Rule 22 permitted segregationist Southerners to stall civil-rights legislation until 1964, when the requisite two-thirds was finally mustered.

In 1975, liberals, with much huffing and puffing, managed to obtain a tiny modification of Rule 22: only three-fifths of the Senate would henceforth be needed for cloture.

In the years since this pathetically inadequate reform, filibusters have become more and more routine. And Senator Dole has broken new ground by using a filibuster to prevent a vote on an incoming president's basic economic program. President Reagan didn't face such tactics in 1981. If the GOP had filibustered Roosevelt in 1932, we might not have had a New Deal.

Why not simply change Rule 22 by majority vote? Because it takes a two-thirds vote to cut off debate about changing the rule for cutting off debate!

The dirty little secret is that virtually everyone in Washington has an interest in keeping the current rules. The ability of a handful of senators to block any action is one of the things that makes senators such big wheels.

Now that Senator Dole has pulled off his coup there are 43 Senate Republicans who are suddenly worth knowing, and bribing with campaign donations (and pork-barrel projects). Lobbyists who have ''access'' to the 43 senators are suddenly more valuable.

And there are 43 additional political celebrities to be interviewed, so journalists are more in demand as well. That's the kind of ''stimulus'' Washington understands.

TRB is a column of The New Republic, written by Mickey Kaus.

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