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The dangers of demanding consistency

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My colleague George Will is not very impressed with the concern over Senate rules. "Such talk occurs only when the left's agenda is stalled," he writes. "Do you remember mournful editorials and somber seminars about 'dysfunctional' government when liberals defeated George W. Bush's Social Security reforms?"

Actually, I sort of do. "If Senate rules, exploited by an anti-constitutional minority, are allowed to trump the Constitution's text and two centuries of practice," wrote one conservative commentator in 2003, "the Senate's power to consent to judicial nominations will have become a Senate right to require a supermajority vote for confirmation. By thus nullifying the president's power to shape the judiciary, the Democratic Party will wield a presidential power without having won a presidential election."

That commentator, of course, was George Will. As he says, "both parties have been situational ethicists regarding filibusters," and that's to be expected. If we insist on consistency in Washington, no one will ever be able to do anything, of any sort. The point here is not that both parties have flipped on the filibuster, but that both parties have been able to make a very strong argument that the filibuster and other sundry rules of Senate obstructionism are posing a larger problem than they did in the past. And both parties are right about that. The minority must protect its interests while it's out of power, but that shouldn't stop us from thinking hard about a bipartisan pact to set rules to govern the Senate six or eight years from today, when no one knows who will hold power.

Finally, Will accuses liberals who are not sufficiently respectful of the Senate's undemocratic nature of believing the Founders either "dolts or knaves." This is nonsense. The Founders were trying to entice large states and small states alike into an uncertain union. They solved it as best they could. And as part of their solution, they decided that the Senate should be appointed, not elected.

But just as we have reversed that judgment in recent years without sacrificing our respect for the Founders, so too do we have the ability and the responsibility to think hard about the problems that face the nation and ensure our government is equipped to handle them in he future. That's what the Founders did with the messy compromise that constructed the Senate, and it will be what we do with ours.

Graph credit: By Norm Ornstein/The American

By Ezra Klein  |  February 26, 2010; 5:47 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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Next: Reconciliation

Comments

George Will "D'oh, Ezra must be using the intertubes again. Why won't he get off my lawn! And while I'm at it, lets go back to the founders idea that black people should be slaves and only count for 3/5 of a person."

Posted by: srw3 | February 26, 2010 6:46 PM | Report abuse

"Do you remember mournful editorials and somber seminars about 'dysfunctional' government when liberals defeated George W. Bush's Social Security reforms?"

"If Senate rules, exploited by an anti-constitutional minority, are allowed to trump the Constitution's text and two centuries of practice, the Senate's power to consent to judicial nominations will have become a Senate right to require a supermajority vote for confirmation. By thus nullifying the president's power to shape the judiciary, the Democratic Party will wield a presidential power without having won a presidential election."

Are "social security reforms" and "judicial nominations" the same thing? Or is this a good example of a straw man?

Posted by: kingstu01 | February 26, 2010 7:17 PM | Report abuse

I remember reading that column by Will then.

Ezra, few things need to happen if your status / reputation as 'the young blogger who made it' need to be sustained - you got to be after 4 commentators:
- George Will of Post
- Charles Kruathammer of Post
- David Brooks of NYT and
- Peggy Noonan of WSJ.

No, I am not stupid to say that you be after them for the sake of it. (You are much smarter than that to allow it.) But it is absolutely essential that these folks are brought to task for their punditry. Except Kruathammer (who is like Larry Kudlow, Bill Kristol - totally ideological never open for any intellectual honesty); I like all 3. David Brooks is open too, but still succumbs to ideology instead of facts at times. Peggy still writes great, but needs to be made to face facts as well.

The reason I am saying this is because the kind of influence these folks carry, their false Conservative ideas are propagated at the cost of interests of common person in the street.

Sometime back Joe Klein of Time said in responding to 'villager' comment to him by Left that indeed many commentators in Washington DC are resting on their laurels, elevated status without justifying any intellectual rigor and continue to sprout their punditry cheap. They are rusty.

In short these are the people who are earning their wages cheaply and even by damaging interests of American Public. George Will is exhibit A of that group.

That is why blogs are there and that is what blogging is expected to do - tear down the non-sense sprouted under the grab of 'punditry'.

(There are many Conservatives I like - Megan, Taylor Cowen and many others who are at least honest. So no, I do not loath Conservative commentary.)

Posted by: umesh409 | February 26, 2010 7:17 PM | Report abuse

"Do you remember mournful editorials and somber seminars about 'dysfunctional' government when liberals defeated George W. Bush's Social Security reforms?"

The so-called "reforms" of Social Security weren't stymied by Senate procedure, for God's sake. The Republicans in Congress had little enthusiasm for the daft project and never even came up with a bill, if memory serves.

Posted by: thehersch | February 26, 2010 7:20 PM | Report abuse

Just to point out that I do not disagree with all of Will's commentary -

His column about opposing Obama's Afghan Policy - that was exceptional even though I support Conservative & Obama position there (despite being run of the mill Liberal). That was an exceptional column, honest, incisive and classic political commentary, policy criticism at it's best.

But too much bad commentary continues to come from Will - his comments about Global Warming and now about Senate Rules; those are not keeping with facts and we expect him to respond to 'facts'.

Posted by: umesh409 | February 26, 2010 7:25 PM | Report abuse

George Will: "Do you remember mournful editorials and somber seminars about 'dysfunctional' government when liberals defeated George W. Bush's Social Security reforms?"

Thehersch: "The so-called "reforms" of Social Security weren't stymied by Senate procedure, for God's sake. The Republicans in Congress had little enthusiasm for the daft project and never even came up with a bill, if memory serves."

This is my memory too.

Correc tme if I'm worng,, but I thought the reality was that the Repubs never chanced a legislative bill. And there was almost no working relationship with the Bush White House. The Administration had snubbed its congressional leadership like dogs, and cut-off lots of information about the Iraq War and many other things, angering them royally (the Senators are after all like mini-potentates or mini-Presidents.)

President Bush did the townhall warmups on his own about Soc Sec privatization for several months. He made a very good attempt too, considering the nature of the proposal. (If you don't believe me, go read his townhall transcripts, ultimate slices of historiana.) It easily would have become a thousands-of-page bill...

But when he went to hand it to Congress for realization as policy, there was already no working relationship.

There was even political danger in sticking with the President. By mid-2005 the War was starting to smell mismanaged to everybody.

So the Republicans said something like, "Oh, Yeah? Are you kidding us?"

And lo! the Repubs turned around to see their friends the Dems with Cheshire grins shaking "no."

That was all the Dems had to do. The Republicans did not take up the cause, and it ended at President Bush's last townhall.

Perhaps this illustrates three (count 'em, 3) Prez attempts at safety-net policy, for your comparative analysis: Clinton tried to send a comprehensive health bill from the White House. Bush volunteered himself to a good deal of study for the townhall warm-up, but alienated his own Congress by then. Obama did the usual buy-offs with the biggest players (ensuring an image sacrifice, another example of leadership) and then left it to Congress to do the policy. This strikes me as being very smart. Not least by avoiding the previous examples.

Posted by: Lee_A_Arnold | February 26, 2010 7:48 PM | Report abuse

Sorry, anyone who thinks James Madison would have designed a bicameral legislature where one body needed 60 % to pass legislation and the other needed 50%+1 is a dolt. Such a system is inherently unstable. The work to gather the 60th Senator means that effectively the House has no function at all.
In such a body, the house must accept Senate bills virtually as dictated. The cooling that the Senate is designed to do is a function of the statewide representation, the undemocratic apportionment and the staggered elections.

Posted by: windshouter | February 26, 2010 8:01 PM | Report abuse

Not to mention that the filibuster is a Senate rule, not a Constitutional issue.

Posted by: MosBen | February 26, 2010 8:31 PM | Report abuse

So complaining about the Senate filibuster rule is idiocy, but complaining about the reconciliation process is just fine? They are both legal legislative maneuvers. If the Republicans choose to abuse the filibuster process, as is clearly the case, the Democrats should be entitled to use any legislative means available to pass their agenda.

Posted by: cdservais | February 26, 2010 8:38 PM | Report abuse

Thursday’s health care summit was what it was: an exercise in rhetoric. Republicans reprised their familiar routine of propaganda and political theater. Democrats dug in, sticking mostly to the same talking points they’ve been repeating for over a year now. And the President persistently attempted to bridge the gaps and break the deadlock between them, to no avail.

Unfortunately, it was obvious from Senator Lamar Alexander’s (R-TN) opening remarks onward that Republicans never intended to have a real conversation about health care. Rather than focusing on areas of potential agreement, like medical malpractice reform, the senator chose instead to misrepresent the facts about health insurance premiums.

Behind a facade of phony fiscal fortitude, the G.O.P. blindly obstructs legislation essential to our economic recovery, hoping that this cynical strategy will return them to power.

Moreover, by repeatedly refusing to engage in a serious exchange of ideas, Congressional Republicans fail to acknowledge the fundamental truth behind health care reform: that it is an economic and social necessity.

Read more @ http://armchairfirebrand.wordpress.com/

Posted by: ArmchairFirebrand | February 27, 2010 5:34 AM | Report abuse

"If we insist on consistency in Washington, no one will ever be able to do anything, of any sort."

I'd be very careful here. You seem to be saying that laws, traditions, principles, the Constitution, reason, truth, anything don't matter. That only policy and will do.

Now I know it's hard to expect much from crooks, adulterers, and liars, but I fully expect recognition and appreciation that law does exist and that we are all guided by law as they attempt to make law.

If not, then we're really screwed.

Posted by: cprferry | February 27, 2010 9:50 AM | Report abuse

"Not to mention that the filibuster is a Senate rule, not a Constitutional issue.
Posted by: MosBen"

The filibuster is a democratic tradition going back to Rome and prevalent in every modern constitutional democratic republics.

Posted by: cprferry | February 27, 2010 10:14 AM | Report abuse

I'm just guessing that they had to think about reconciliation in the ancient Roman Senate.

Posted by: Lee_A_Arnold | February 27, 2010 2:12 PM | Report abuse

Bravo, Mr. Klien.

I've noticed over the last several months that Geo. Will has become increasingly more rancorous in his language. While I've not often agreed with Mr. Will, his reasonable tone and rhetoric allowed me to listen to his point of view. It's becoming much harder by the week.

As for Will's turnabout, I've noticed that as well. And I've noticed it in several pundits, not just about Senate rules but everything. Heck, I even remember some conservative "economist"(aka GW Bush apologist?) saying that "running deficits was a good thing." Now, those same people who were saying "deficits are good" when Bush was President are screaming about the deficit. That's not to say I approve of the high deficit, I just disapprove of the hypocrisy.

Posted by: valkayec | February 28, 2010 12:38 PM | Report abuse

"The filibuster is a democratic tradition going back to Rome and prevalent in every modern constitutional democratic republics."

Hmmm.

I have been hearing a lot of chatter from the right on this blog about the noble tradition of the filibuster and how it prevents tyranny of the majority.

I might have more patience with this argument if the filibuster-lovers would point to concrete historical examples of successful filibusters that turned out to be "on the right side of history."

The filibuster seems most famous as being used as a tool to preserve segregation by blocking civil rights legislation, and as a simple political tactic for legislative obstruction.

If the filibuster has served us so well, I am suprised we don't seem to have a single familiar example of a famed historic filibuster that Americans all agree was (in retrospect) a noble cause. Am I forgetting one?

Many landmark Supreme Court rulings went against the political tides of their era, stopped a tyranny of the majority, and made society more just as a result. But who can name a filibuster that did the same thing?

Posted by: Patrick_M | February 28, 2010 9:11 PM | Report abuse

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