Thursday, May 12, 2005

There's something about procedural rules that brings out the hypocrite in just about everyone. Power Line's Scott Johnson catches distinguished Minnesota politician Walter Mondale succumbing to the temptation, with the support of his local newspaper. Mondale recently published an op-ed defending the Senate filibuster, now under attack by Republicans frustrated over their inability to confirm Bush administration judicial appointments. The newspaper, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, now concurs with Mondale. A little over a decade ago, though, the paper condemned a 1993 Republican filibuster of a Clinton administration spending bill. And less than a year later, it endorsed a campaign to end the filibuster altogether. Mondale, in fact, was one of the leaders of the successful 1975 Democratic move to reduce the number of senators needed to break a filibuster from 67 to 60.

Of course, those were different times. In 1993 and 1994, for example, a Democratic president confronted a rambunctious Republican minority who were as enthusiastic about exercising their minority prerogatives as the Democrats were about limiting them. Not only were Republican senators filibustering Clinton spending initiatives, but conservatives were enthusiastically embracing the general idea that certain government decisions--in particular, tax increases--should be subject to a minority veto. The Heritage Foundation endorsed a Constitutional amendment to enforce the principle in 1996, and the Republican-controlled Senate voted in support of it in 1998. Numerous states--mostly Republican-controlled--have enacted some form of it.

One can, to be sure, make specific arguments for limiting the supermajority requirement to tax increases, or judicial appointments, or even poet laureate nominations. But in practice, any faction that sees itself as secure in its dominance tends to oppose supermajority requirements altogether, while factions that see their grip slipping, or not yet firm, will see supermajority requirements as an important equalizer against the powers-that-be.

In truth, there's no magic to the number 50%--or 60%, or 67%, for that matter. As long as the number remains fixed, a responsive political class will generate the required majorities to meet the insistent demands of voters. The real problem occurs when changes in the rules outpace the political system's ability to react. With respect to control of the judiciary, that point was reached decades ago, when the American judicial custom of arbitrarily overruling the democratically accountable branches of government expanded from an occasional hobby into a full-time profession. The resulting disruption of the political equilibrium--reflected in the Bork and Thomas nomination fights, the Republican stalling tactics of the 1990s, and the recent filibusters--is still far from being resolved.

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