I've been puzzling over why Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, chose this week to push through a change to the rules governing the Senate, and why his caucus supported him almost unanimously. I think there are wheels within wheels on this one.
Let me say at once that I agree with its critics: the Republican Party is guilty of deliberate obstructionism and obfuscation in the Senate. They seem to have gone into 'temper tantrum' mode, blocking anything and everything they can because they can't get their way on most legislation. This is childish and ridiculous. When a Republican president is in power, they expect all his nominees to be approved; but when a Democratic president occupies the White House, they act like obstructionist cry-babies. The way our system is set up, a President gets to nominate those he wants to see in office. The Senate should get to vote on them, not hold them up out of pique or a fit of petulance. As the New York Times correctly noted:
As Mr. Reid noted on the floor, half of all filibusters waged against nominations in Senate history have occurred since Mr. Obama was elected. Twenty of his district court nominees were filibustered; only three such filibusters took place before he took office. There has also been a record-setting amount of delay in approving the president’s choices for cabinet positions and federal agency posts, even when no objections have been raised about a nominee’s qualifications.
Nevertheless, the set of checks and balances that govern the Senate have been developed out of many years of experience. They inhibit both sides from doing too much damage. I believe the Republicans have indeed been misusing them, but that doesn't mean those checks and balances no longer have any value - because once they've been overturned, as the Democrats have now done, the other side can misuse the new rules to ram through whatever they want when they regain the majority. Furthermore, once a single hole has been made in the ice, more holes can (and probably will) follow. Who's to say the Senate rules can't or won't be further amended, to remove even more checks and balances?
I can see only two possible rationales for the Democrats' action in the Senate this week.
- They're confident they can prevent the Republicans from ever gaining a workable majority in the Senate, either through the electoral process, or through co-opting liberal Republicans like Senators Collins, Graham and Murkowski.
- The Democratic Party leaders have resigned themselves to losing control of the Senate in the mid-term elections next year, and therefore have decided to "make hay while the sun shines". They're going to ram through every Federal appointment they can, pursue their liberal/progressive agenda at every turn, and frustrate every bill sent through by the Republican-controlled House, so that they can have as lasting an effect as possible on the US Administration even after they lose control. If they get enough of 'their' people appointed to Federal office, they'll be there for years to come, and significantly influence the way the US government operates.
Considering how many Democratic Senators are in danger from an electoral backlash in reaction to Obamacare, I have my doubts about the first hypothesis. I suspect the second is true.
I'm even more convinced about that when I read the backing and wheeling being conducted by partisan sources in the US media, trying desperately to justify this development. Take, for example, the New York Times. During the Clinton administration it argued in favor of the 'nuclear option' to overcome Republican opposition to nominees. During the second Bush administration, in 2005, it reversed its position:
A decade ago, this page expressed support for tactics that would have gone even further than the "nuclear option" in eliminating the power of the filibuster. At the time, we had vivid memories of the difficulty that Senate Republicans had given much of Bill Clinton's early agenda. But we were still wrong. To see the filibuster fully, it's obviously a good idea to have to live on both sides of it. We hope acknowledging our own error may remind some wavering Republican senators that someday they, too, will be on the other side and in need of all the protections the Senate rules can provide.
Now, with another Democrat in power, it's reversed its position again, headlining its editorial "Democracy Returns to the Senate". The fact that it can so unblushingly change course every time the occupant of the White House is of a different party tells us all we need to know about the New York Times' objectivity - or the complete and utter absence thereof.
To me, this is yet another symptom that the 'old guard' in US politics is becoming more and more bitter, more and more entrenched in a war to the political death with young, 'upstart' politicians who are listening more to the people than they are to the party 'machine'. It's "the party way or the highway", whether representatives - or the electorate - like it or not. You want examples? Sure. Democrats have just done that in Colorado, while Republican 'insider' hard-liners are now threatening to do it to the Tea Party. There are many other examples - all it takes to find them is an Internet search. The checks and balances built into our political system are increasingly being bypassed or ignored, not least by the President himself (albeit like other Presidents before him).
The most troubling thing about all this, as far as I'm concerned, is that our politicians are wasting their time, talent (such as it is) and energy on bickering with each other over procedural issues, while all the time our economy is going down in flames. I wrote about that earlier today. The really important issues are being ignored for the sake of political one-upmanship . . . and that may be literally disastrous for our country.
My suggestion: vote out of office every single politician, Republican or Democrat, who displays such attitudes and (by extension) such contempt for the electorate. That includes every Senator currently in office. We don't need any of them to be making decisions on our behalf. Let's wipe the slate clean and start afresh. It can't possibly be worse than what we've got now!