Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Monster in the Senate Closet: The Filibuster

Imagine the innocence of childhood.  No fears of tomorrow.  No concerns about mortgages, taxes, illnesses, broken families.  Yet, even into the innocence of childhood, monsters will creep.  In my childhood, the boys in our family shared to large rooms in the basement of our Falls Church, Virginia home.

I love basements.  There is a moldering smell due to dampness.  There are crevices and hideaways to explore.  They are indoor playgrounds of manifold opportunities.

When the night comes, though, and the lights go down for bed time, a basement, just like a bedroom with a closet, becomes a place of great danger to a child's active imagination.  I am not ashamed to admit creeping from the bed to our little half-bath when I had to relieve myself.  Creeping along the basement walls and ducking low as I passed underneath the high set windows that were, as much as anything else, a means of ventilation, since they were at ground level outside the home.

Why did I creep so softly and gingerly?

For fear.

Fear of what was outside that might be looking in.

Others had the same experience of fear, but their childhood spent in bedrooms with closets, they feared the boogeyman in the closet. Movies are made in the horror genre that feature the child's bedroom closet because so many know that gripping fear of the closet.

Of course, we grow up and realize the true horror of what is in the closet:  handme down clothes, stinky socks, the odd spider, toys.  Nothing to fear. Now we laugh at our childhood fear.

The United States Senate has lived under the grip of a mortal terror for nearly two centuries.  Far too long, the Senate, a mature institution of popular sovereignty and governance, has laid about under the grip of that monster in the closet.  Oddly, at a time when we, who belong to the fellowship of former closet monster victims, are long past being held hostage to the imagined monster, the Senate continues to quake in fear and inaction.  And it appears that even removing the Democratic majority in the Senate will not snap the Senate out of the grip of its terrorized paralysis.

Here are a couple examples drawn from the headlines:

At the beginning of the new Congress, socialist Bernie Sanders summoned up the boogeyman in an effort to prevent adoption of the Keystone pipeline legislation:

Not to be outdone, New York Democrat Chuckie "Where's the Camera" Schumer and other Democrats threaten a filibuster of the separate funding legislation for the Department of Homeland Security:

During the tenure of George W. Bush, the Director of the nonprofit where I worked asked me what could be done about the filibuster being used by Democrats to block confirmation votes for Bush's judicial nominees.  There was, of course, talk about the "nuclear option" but what was that option, how would it work, how could it be given effect and why should it.  These were his questions to me.  That set me to the task of reviewing the Senate's filibuster practice, the Senate Rules governing that practice, and the political wisdom of that practice.

Based on my research and study, I concluded that the Senate, at any time a majority of those present and voting wished to do so, could amend the Senate Rules and eliminate the filibuster by the vote of a simple majority.  I also concluded that eliminating the filibuster was a sound political decision that our organization, The American Center for Law and Justice, should support.  I have not waivered from that view since then, even when the Senate filibuster allowed Republicans in the minority to hold the Senate hostage to their demands.  (While the document bears the names of two other ACLJ attorneys, it is solely the product of my research and writing).

Today, we are once again being terrorized.

Yes, terrorized.  Just as when parents soundly sleeping are startled awake by the nightmare screams of their child, whose horrified screams simply embody their fear of the monster in the closet.  Our body politic is disturbed by the pretended fear of Republicans that they will be held hostage to Democrats in minority through the device of the filibuster.

The problem for Republicans is that the monster in the closet no longer terrorizes those who were minding the legislative store during the last session of Congress.  Then, in a fit of pique, the Democrats finally pushed through a change to the Senate's ridiculous and time-honored practice. Harry Reid bullied those changes through to accommodate Obama's petulant demand for judicial confirmations and Republicans' skillful play of the filibuster rule to prevent votes on certain judges. Because Reid, via a simple parliamentary procedure, changed the filibuster rule and practice as applied to judicial and executive nomination votes, we now know a parliamentary truth:

A simple majority vote of the Senate -- taken at any time the Senate is in session -- can be used to amend the Rules of the Senate.  Such amendments may change even long practiced senatorial privileges as the filibuster.

Once you have gone into your closet with a matured judgment ... and with the lights on ... you begin to realize the infantilism in your night terrors.  You chuckle at how you were held in rigid paralysis by the certainty that a monster would leap out and take you wherever it is that closet monsters take their unwitting victims.  And so it is here.  We know that the only reason that Democrats can obstruct the Senate Republican majority is if the Senate Republican majority chooses to play terrorized child, captive to a rule that has no more merit or substance in this era than does the closet monster of our childhood in our adult lives.

While the horror genre provides entertainment, and perhaps even serves a psychological purpose of providing manageable doses of fear that we can conquer by confronting, it is a poor framework for the exercise of, or for preventing the exercise of, political will.  The Republicans should overthrow the vestiges of the filibuster, and legislate apace.