Jewish World Review May 12, 2005 / 3 Iyar 5765

Paul Greenberg

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Who's for the filibuster now? | Dear New York Times Reader,

It was wholly a pleasure to receive the recent editorial you clipped from the illustrious New York Times in order to show me the error of my ways — and explain why conservatives should be supporting, not opposing, the current filibuster in the U.S. Senate:

"The Republicans are claiming that 51 votes should be enough to win confirmation of the White House's judicial nominees. This flies in the face of Senate history. . . . The Bush administration likes to call itself 'conservative,' but there is nothing conservative about endangering one of the great institutions of American democracy, the United States Senate, for the sake of an ideological crusade." — New York Times, March 6, 2005.

But here is another, separate but equally fervid view: "In the last session of Congress, the Republican minority invoked an endless string of filibusters to frustrate the will of the majority. . . . Once a rarely used tactic reserved for issues on which the senators held passionate views, the filibuster has become the tool of the sore loser . . . . an archaic rule that frustrates democracy and serves no useful purpose." — The New York Times, Jan. 1, 1995.

It should surprise no one who keeps up with the Times' editorial positions (which would be about as exciting a job as watching paint dry) that its reversible principles on this subject depend on whose filibuster is being gored.

In that regard, the Times would seem to have much in common with our two political parties, whose opinion of the filibuster seems to depend on whether they're in the majority or minority at the time.

Some of us have a sentimental attachment to the filibuster that goes back years. We'd come to think of it as the last resort of an embattled minority — even when it was being used in the most despicable of causes, like perpetuating Jim Crow in these antebellum latitudes.

But even in the bad old days, the spectacle of bitter-enders like Strom Thurmond waging a 'round-the-clock talkathon against the most elemental of civil rights had its good side: It demonstrated just how desperate the defenders of a lost cause could become. After a while, they seemed less principled than just silly, reduced to reading from the phone book or carrying on inane colloquies with one another just to pass the time of day, or night.

There are various parliamentary quirks (like the filibuster) and constitutional oddities (like the Electoral College) that still have great value, and should not be discarded lightly. Instead of junking them, why not adjust them so they retain their value but do not become insufferable?

How reform the filibuster without destroying it? Here's a not-so-modest proposal: Go back to the days when senators actually had to hold the floor and speak forever in order to hold up business. If the filibuster is such a great idea, its supporters should be willing to sacrifice something for it, like sleep. Change the rules so that those who wish to debate this subject endlessly have to do just that.

Nor would those conducting the talkfest be the only ones to pay a price. Those trying to close debate and bring these judicial nominations to the floor would have to be present in sufficient numbers to maintain a quorum and prevent the other side from taking a much needed break on the ground that not enough members were present to continue the session.

There would be no more long weekends at home or pricey junkets abroad — not for the duration of the filibuster. It would be quite a show, and a great incentive to come up with some kind of reasonable compromise before both sides collapsed at their desks.

Edmund Burke once said that renovations in government, like renovations to an old house, should be done in the style of the original. Let's retro-fit the filibuster and return it to its old form. That would be progress.

The true conservative does not oppose all change, for he realizes there is no surer way to render an institution obsolete than never to change it. But he also doesn't sacrifice practices long established, like the filibuster, to suit short-term, partisan purposes, which is what distinguishes the principled conservative — or liberal — from purely expedient types like The New York Times.

So, yes, retain the filibuster as one more brake in the whole constitutional scheme of checks and balances, but not as the ultimate, unanswerable weapon of obstructionists.

Make it harder to wage a filibuster, but don't destroy it. There may come a time when those now trying to kill the filibuster have need of it.


Inky Wretch

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