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Ralph Waldo Emerson tells us that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” but note he’s talking about a foolish consistency. For Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, there is no role for consistency. When he’s got the majority behind him, then the filibuster is a horrible thing which threatens the nation’s constitutional order. Note, mind you, that the Democrats threatened to use it a handful of times in connection with some truly odious judicial nominees—people who would have a lifetime sinecure if put through. And in the end the Democrats faded from this threat in the face of a massive Republican media campaign in which Mr. McConnell played a focal role.
But when McConnell and his team are in the minority, they have a different attitude: filibuster suddenly becomes the modus operandi. It’s used to block everything—even “sense of the Senate resolutions” that have no binding effect. The filibuster technique is used to bring the business of the Senate to a standstill, and then to form the basis of a charge that this is a “do-nothing” Congress. And of course, thanks to McConnell, the Congress has not addressed the major issues that the electorate in 2006 clearly wanted it to address. But the McConnell ploy succeeds largely because of a complicit press which never manages to actually report what’s happening. In fact, run a search for the word “filibuster.” You’ll find it is rarely employed when filibusters occur. Rather the press will write about “procedural votes,” “cloture,” and “efforts to cut off debate.” This demonstrates the continuing ability of the Republicans to manipulate the media and drive the language it uses to describe what happens in Washington. These word games may be subtle, but as George Orwell reminds us in “Politics and the English Language,” subtle changes in language can have a powerful effect in political perceptions.
If there is one exception in the print media, it’s the McClatchy Newspapers, which have actually called “filibusters” by their proper name. And today McClatchy does a tally and finds that Senator McConnell and the Republicans have set a record:
This year Senate Republicans are threatening filibusters to block more legislation than ever before, a pattern that’s rooted in—and could increase—the pettiness and dysfunction in Congress. The trend has been evolving for 30 years. The reasons behind it are too complex to pin on one party. But it has been especially pronounced since the Democrats’ razor-thin win in last year’s election, giving them effectively a 51-49 Senate majority, and the Republicans’ exile to the minority.
Seven months into the current two-year term, the Senate has held 42 “cloture” votes aimed at shutting off extended debate—filibusters, or sometimes only the threat of one—and moving to up-or-down votes on contested legislation. Under Senate rules that protect a minority’s right to debate, these votes require a 60-vote supermajority in the 100-member Senate. Democrats have trouble mustering 60 votes; they’ve fallen short 22 times so far this year. That’s largely why they haven’t been able to deliver on their campaign promises.
By sinking a cloture vote this week, Republicans successfully blocked a Democratic bid to withdraw combat troops from Iraq by April, even though a 52-49 Senate majority voted to end debate. This year Republicans also have blocked votes on immigration legislation, a no-confidence resolution for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and major legislation dealing with energy, labor rights and prescription drugs.
Nearly 1 in 6 roll-call votes in the Senate this year have been cloture votes. If this pace of blocking legislation continues, this 110th Congress will be on track to roughly triple the previous record number of cloture votes—58 each in the two Congresses from 1999-2002, according to the Senate Historical Office.
So is the use of this technique a threat to the nation’s constitutional order? An occasional filibuster belongs to democracy–after all, think of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” But consciously using this device to bring the work of the Senate to a standstill and then using it to trash the Congress—as McConnell and his Republican colleagues are doing—is an act of constitutional vandalism.
More from Scott Horton:
Six Questions — October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm
Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.
Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp
From the June 2014 issue
For the past three years my dosimeter had sat silently on a narrow shelf just inside the door of a house in Tokyo, upticking its final digit every twenty-four hours by one or two, the increase never failing — for radiation is the ruthless companion of time. Wherever we are, radiation finds and damages us, at best imperceptibly. During those three years, my American neighbors had lost sight of the accident at Fukushima. In March 2011, a tsunami had killed hundreds, or thousands; yes, they remembered that. Several also recollected the earthquake that caused it, but as for the hydrogen explosion and containment breach at Nuclear Plant No. 1, that must have been fixed by now — for its effluents no longer shone forth from our national news. Meanwhile, my dosimeter increased its figure, one or two digits per day, more or less as it would have in San Francisco — well, a trifle more, actually. And in Tokyo, as in San Francisco, people went about their business, except on Friday nights, when the stretch between the Kasumigaseki and Kokkai-Gijido-mae subway stations — half a dozen blocks of sidewalk, which commenced at an antinuclear tent that had already been on this spot for more than 900 days and ended at the prime minister’s lair — became a dim and feeble carnival of pamphleteers and Fukushima refugees peddling handicrafts.
One Friday evening, the refugees’ half of the sidewalk was demarcated by police barriers, and a line of officers slouched at ease in the street, some with yellow bullhorns hanging from their necks. At the very end of the street, where the National Diet glowed white and strange behind other buildings, a policeman set up a microphone, then deployed a small video camera in the direction of the muscular young people in drums against fascists jackets who now, at six-thirty sharp, began chanting: “We don’t need nuclear energy! Stop nuclear power plants! Stop them, stop them, stop them! No restart! No restart!” The police assumed a stiffer stance; the drumming and chanting were almost uncomfortably loud. Commuters hurried past along the open space between the police and the protesters, staring straight ahead, covering their ears. Finally, a fellow in a shabby sweater appeared, and murmured along with the chants as he rounded the corner. He was the only one who seemed to sympathize; few others reacted at all.
Number of U.S. congressional districts in which trade with China has produced more jobs than it has cost:
Young bilingual children who learned one language first are likelier than monolingual children and bilingual children who learned languages simultaneously to say that a dog adopted by owls will hoot.
An Oklahoma legislative committee voted to defund Advanced Placement U.S. History courses, accusing the curriculum of portraying the United States as “a nation of oppressors and exploiters.”
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