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.