November 2, 2008 at 6:20AM
by Jim DiPeso
Democrats are effervescing over the possibility that they will win enough Senate seats on Tuesday to have 60 votes, a filibuster-proof majority.
Well, its not that simple. Issues drive the dynamics of each filibuster. Its not a given that every Democrat would vote to shut down every Republican filibuster every time. Or vice versa, if the shoe were on the other foot.
But with one party holding 60 or more votes, the filibuster would be in a weakened state. And that is not necessarily a good thing. Heres to the defense of the filibuster. Not because it is all the leverage that Republicans may have in a town awash in blue. Because filibusters are a check on excess. And thats good for both parties.
A story, possibly apocryphal, has it that shortly after the Constitutional Convention, Thomas Jefferson was having coffee with George Washington. Jefferson asked why the convention had created the Senate. Washington asked Jefferson why he had just poured his coffee into a saucer. To cool it, Jefferson replied. Exactly why Congress needs a Senate, Washington responded.
The Senates mission to cool political passions and guard against poorly considered legislation has given rise to institutional traditions that may seem peculiar to Americans and rather baroque to people who live in parliamentary democracies.
One of those traditions is unlimited debate. Until 1917, the tradition was unfettered. That year, the Senate adopted a cloture rule requiring a two-thirds vote to end debate. The cloture threshold was cut to three-fifths in 1975. Today, a supermajority of 60 votes is necessary to end a filibuster.
The filibuster entered popular culture in the 1939 film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The filibusterer, played by Jimmy Stewart, was a hero unmasking corruption.
In real life, filibusterers often are cast as villainous obstructionists. Think Strom Thurmond and his record-long 24-hour filibuster against civil rights legislation in 1957.
But in 2005, a filibuster prevented Ted Stevens from using defense appropriations legislation to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. A little obstruction can be a good thing, when strong majorities tempt partisans to overreach and abuse their power.
Now, some of my progressive friends may think that liberals are high-minded people who are immune to the temptations of power that roil human nature. Waxing in exuberance, some believe that after Tuesday, the Age of Aquarius will commence, the lion will lie down with the lamb, and Congress will morph into an enduring temple of decency, justice, and humanity.
But put down the utopia lollipop for a moment and indulge me in a plausible scenario. The economy notwithstanding, climate change is the biggest long-term issue that we face. We have to get it right and the buy-in to the solution must be broad. As Barack Obama himself said on the Daily Show last week, it cant be one party trying to dictate a solution to the problem.
Suppose that the House passes a climate cap-and-trade bill next year. Hundreds of billions of dollars of revenue from auctioning emissions allowances are hanging out there like candy.
Instead of allocating the money to worthwhile endeavors rebates for hard-pressed energy consumers or renewable energy research, for example unrestrained House partisans yield to temptation. They decide to splash out auction revenues on porky wheezes that would add little value to the commonweal, but generate fawning press coverage in their districts and heap rewards on their campaign contributors. In the name of creating jobs, of course. The bill passes on a party-line vote.
A Senate that is equipped to carry out its constitutional mission to cool the Houses passions would be positioned to slow the legislation down, fix it, and prevent Americas first national climate legislation from turning into another DC goody bag. A Senate that is not so equipped may not.
Im not saying that will happen. Im just saying that a filibuster-proof Senate is generally not a good thing, for either side of the aisle.
As Huck Finn said: Overreaching dont pay.