Saturday, February 19, 2011

Obstructionist Politics and the Filibuster

The United States Senate website defines “filibuster” as:

Informal term for any attempt to block or delay Senate action on a bill or other matter by debating it at length, by offering numerous procedural motions, or by any other delaying or obstructive actions.


Currently, sixty of the one hundred members of the Senate must vote to end a filibuster. The filibuster procedure has traditionally been viewed as a way to protect the minority party in the Senate. It preserves some of the minority’s influence so that the majority party does not have free reign to do whatever they want with unfettered discretion. The filibuster is essentially a check against majority domination.

In recent years, the filibuster has been at the heart of nasty political squabbles and its future has come into question. A few years ago, the then-majority Republican Party threatened to end the filibuster procedure. The “nuclear option,” as it was dubbed by then-Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, would have changed the Senate’s procedural rules to allow a simple majority to end a filibuster. In 2005, then-Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee threatened to use the nuclear option due to the inability to confirm some of President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees.

The Republicans’ threat was prompted because ten of President Bush’s judicial nominees were blocked by the Democrats, who charged those candidates were extremists. The then-minority Democrats in the Senate had allowed over two hundred of President Bush’s judicial nominees to be confirmed. So, in actuality, the nuclear option was threatened over the Democrats’ opposition to a relatively small number of judicial nominees. The links below describe the 2005 controversy:

Senator Frist even took the issue to the Conservative Christian community and claimed that the filibusters were aimed at people of faith. The links below contain reports on Senator Frist’s campaigning.

The 2005 crisis was resolved with a compromise of sorts by the “Gang of 14”—a group of seven Democratic and seven Republican senators who made a pact to oppose the nuclear option, as well as the filibuster of judicial nominees except in extraordinary circumstances. In essence, the Senate Democrats saved the filibuster in 2005 by promising to not use it. The link below contains a report on the compromise.

It is probably fortunate for the Republicans that they did not use the nuclear option. Shortly after the threats of the nuclear option, the Republicans became the minority party in the Senate. In the 2006 elections, they lost control of the Senate.

Neither Lott nor Frist are still in the Senate at the present time. Senator Lott resigned from Senate leadership in 2002 after making racially insensitive and ignorant remarks about Strom Thurmond’s platform in his presidential campaign in 1948 as a Dixiecrat. He remained in the Senate until 2007, when he resigned to pursue a career in lobbying. Senator Frist had had a long and successful career as a surgeon before entering politics. He was first elected to the Senate in 1995 and resigned in 2007. He has since continued his medical career by teaching at Vanderbilt University and being involved in various charities with a health care focus.

Since becoming the minority party in the Senate, the Republicans have embraced a new-found admiration for the filibuster procedure. They have used it a record number of times in recent years. In the past two years alone, there have been eighty-nine filibusters.

Although they are not proposing the “nuclear option,” this gridlock has led the current majority-Democrats to consider some more modest reforms of the filibuster procedure to make it more transparent. The report below provides some of the details of the Democrats’ current concerns about the filibuster:

The wisdom of the filibuster procedure continues to be a controversial device. It is a thorn in the side of the majority party and a cherished tool of the minority. The link below contains a debate from 2005 on the wisdom of the filibuster. The text includes arguments both in favor and against the existence of the filibuster.

About a year ago, Professor Gregory Koger was interviewed by Terry Gross on the radio program “Fresh Air” to discuss the filibuster procedure and Professor Koger’s book Filibustering: A Political History of Obstruction in the House and Senate.

James 4:4-6 (The Message)

You're cheating on God. If all you want is your own way, flirting with the world every chance you get, you end up enemies of God and his way. And do you suppose God doesn't care? The proverb has it that "he's a fiercely jealous lover." And what he gives in love is far better than anything else you'll find. It's common knowledge that "God goes against the willful proud; God gives grace to the willing humble."

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