Man Without Qualities

Friday, November 12, 2004

The Senate's Time-honored, 200-year-old Tradition

One needs an especially strong stomach and unflappably low blood pressure to listen to United States Senators discuss the "traditions" of their chamber. The bon mots of New York Senator Charles Schumer on a proposal to limit the use of filibusters against federal judicial nominees provide a particularly septic example:

"To implement it would make the last Congress look like a bipartisan tea party," Senator Charles E. Schumer, the New York Democrat who is on the Judiciary Committee, said. "For the sake of country and some degree of comity, I would hope and pray that the majority leader would not take away the Senate's time-honored, 200-year-old tradition."

The "200-year-old tradition" of requiring a three-fifth majority (sixty Senators) cloture vote to end debate in the Senate to which Senator Schumer refers dates back only to 1975, when the Senate reduced the number of votes required for cloture from two-thirds (67) to three-fifths (60) of the 100-member Senate. But the rule allowing termination of debate upon a two-thirds cloture vote itself only dates back to 1919. Before 1919 the Senate permitted unlimited debate. Senator Schumer is perhaps referring to that tradition?

Who knew that Senator Schumer revered filibuster stunts as he now says he does? It is well known that filibusters were particularly useful to southern senators blocking civil rights legislation in the 1950s and 1960s. The record for the longest individual speech goes to South Carolina's J. Strom Thurmond who filibustered for 24 hours and 18 minutes against the Civil Rights Act of 1957. The filibuster-powered obstructionism of segregationist Senators was cited as an important symptom that the democratically elected branches of the federal government could not by themselves deal with the civil rights crisis of the mid-20th Century - and therefore as justification for the liberal judicial activism. Senator Schumer is a big fan of that flavor of judicial activism. Is he trying to preserve one of its historical justifications or is he just being sentimental? It's so hard to remember those long-dead days when New York and its representatives once preened themselves as progressive!

Senate debate serves exactly one legitimate purpose: Presentation to the Senate of potentially persuasive information and argument pertaining to a matter before the chamber. Once all relevant information has been presented and all material arguments made, further debate serves no legitimate function. It is therefore particularly illegitimate for "debate" to go on against the will of the Senate majority once every Senator has made up his or her mind on the matter debated.

But then there's Chuck Schumer's reverence for the Senate's time-honored, 200-year-old tradition.

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