Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Mr. Smith and the Filibuster

Well, I guess some folks are trying to figure out what just happened in the Senate. Did McCain lead a coup against the leadership of Frist, thereby gaining a leg up on his putative rival for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008? Did Frist and McCain conspire, manipulating the Democrats into confirming most of the President's appeals court nominees while keeping the nuclear option cocked in their back pockets? Did Reid sustain a major wound in the process of avoiding a fatal blow? Or did he outfox the Republicans, saving his "exceptional circumstances" option to thwart a future Supreme Court nominee? Do Americans care either way?

Timothy Noah, writing at, puts things in a little perspective in a piece titled "The Mr. Smith Fallacy." He refers to the classic Frank Capra move, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." In the movie, the idealistic Mr. Smith (played by James Stewart) stages a filibuster against corrupt elements in the Senate. As Noah explains, that filibuster wasn't what it seemed to be, and the movie wasn't very realistic. In fact, the filibuster throughout history has been a reactionary tool rather than a progressive device for guarding minority rights.

Mr. Smith, of course, was fiction. Perhaps the best example of the general nuttiness of the Senate is the role played by the very real Senator Robert Byrd, so beloved of liberal Democrats. He staunchly defends the right of the minority to filibuster against judicial nominees, both in back-room dealmaking and in long, rambling, sadly confused floor speeches. This principled supporter of the filibuster started his political career as a Kleagle in the Ku Klux Klan of West Virginia, demonstrating as an up-and-coming young racist politician that he understood the sentiments of his constituents. Many years later in the Senate, he put the filibuster to good use in defense of his values, speaking for over 14 hours against the 1964 Civil Rights Act (which was supported by a majority of Republicans). But what the heck; that was last century, and he's a Democrat, so liberals and the race management professionals (Jackson, Sharpton, et al.) aren't going to hold it against him. Of course, in this century Kleagle Byrd was still using the "n" word in a televised interview, but that's OK, too--he's still a Democrat. The fact that the Democratic Party and the Senate as a whole would revere a man like Byrd pretty much puts the lie to all their pretensions.

I supported, and still support, anything the Senate does to ensure that presidential nominees get an up-or-down vote on the floor. After the Senators have had time to preen and posture in committee hearings and floor debate, in the end they have to vote on the nominee. If they can't manage to do something as simple as that, we ought to send all of them home. Most of them are millionaires anyway, and they won't starve.

In fact, let's go further. Let's not end the filibuster just for appeals court and Supreme Court nominees, which is all we're talking about at this point. Let's end the filibuster, period. It's not in the Constitution. It's been used in the past mainly to frustrate legislation that subsequently proved to be good for the country. It's a tool used by minorities to frustrate majority rule in a legislative body that isn't very democratic to begin with. Let the majority rule, whoever they are. It's called democracy.


Blogger John Walter said...

I don't think Frist and McCain were scheming together. I think McCain simply walked over Frist who hasn't yet mastered the art of Senate arm twisting. This hurts both mens' presidential ambitions. It hurts McCain because he has forgotten that he can play to national opinion all he wants, but if the party faithful consider him a traitor, then he'll never be nominated. It hurts Frist because Frist has come out of this looking weak.

7:15 PM, May 25, 2005  
Blogger Kevin said...


I'm with you on Byrd and the hypocrisy of the democratic party, by their support of him. I have seen good people go down for less.

Keep up the good work.


11:22 PM, May 25, 2005  
Blogger MaxedOutMama said...

Tom, I always enjoy your posts and find them entertaining, but I rarely bust out laughing. This time I did. Kleagle Byrd. Stick this one up on your sidebar and keep it there.

11:28 PM, May 25, 2005  
Blogger Tom Carter said...

John, I think you're right. This is going to hurt McCain. I think the other six will catch a lot of crap back home, too.

MOM, it's always seemed to me that doddering old Bobby Byrd is a miracle of modern politics. How could the Democratic Party, of all groups, tolerate him?

6:03 AM, May 26, 2005  
Blogger Esther said...

The filibuster is supposed to be there to protect minority rights, not just to frustrate majority rule. We used to care about such things. It will be interesting if the dems ever get the majority back. I'm not saying I like all the dems are doing....but it's still interesting.

8:31 PM, May 26, 2005  
Anonymous howard said...

I personally enjoy watching partisans buck their party lines: it's one of the incredibly few reasonable things that happen in Washington.

It's when we can count on Republicans toeing their line and Democrats toeing the opposite line that I feel like we should just send them all home.

12:38 AM, May 27, 2005  
Blogger carla said...

It's the job of the Senate to provide advice AND CONSENT on nominees. It's most certainly the role of the minority party to hold that consent back using senatorial procedures if they believe that nominees are so unworthy that should they be confirmed it will be bad for the judiciary.

Given that the Democrats have allowed 95% of Bush's nominees to go through..complaining about this 5% by the Republicans is not only's a demonstration of their disregard for the minority and their naked aggression in pursuit of power.

If the Bush Administration cannot convince 60 Senators that a nominee is worthy to be on the bench..then that nominee shouldn't be given the opportunity for a lifetime appointment.

FYI: Byrd renounced his association with the Klan decades ago. I never ceased to be amazed at how conservatives will hold on to something like this..and disregard current racial slurs like those that were perpetuated by Trent Lott while he was Majority Leader.

1:36 PM, May 29, 2005  

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