Md. to change filibuster rule

now that we know that, what do we do?

January 05, 2004|by TIM ROWLAND

Sen. Alex Mooney's campaign fund-raising letters tend to fall like the rains of spring, so it was pretty much a given that one of them would ooze into the hands of Senate President Mike Miller.

Miller, a Democrat who has forgotten more about political hardball than Mooney is ever likely to know, arched one of his considerable eyebrows at a Mooney missive that promised more Republican filibusters in the upcoming 2004 session, in order to trap Democrats into casting politically unpopular votes.

Miller quickly announced that he would simply lower the bar needed for Democrats to choke off Republican stall tactics, and that would be that. Predictably, Mooney howled. Predictably, no one cared.

Mooney was confident he could bring the Maryland Senate to its knees through what is known in politics as "process" - which is one of the main reasons the public in general finds itself so turned-off to democracy today.


Process is shorthand for sticking it to those on the other side of the aisle - gaining power just for the sake of gaining power, without much idea of what to do with it after it's been attained. People in Washington and the nation's statehouses love it.

They love the hunt, the campaigns, the maneuvering and counter maneuvering. And they get so wrapped up in it, they fail to see that to the majority of Americans, it makes them look like idiots.

Since process is tied so closely to partisanship, all logic and consistency goes right up the flume.

For years, when the Democrats had majorities, they saw nothing wrong with gerrymandering voting districts to give their own a distinct advantage at the polls. Now that conservatives hold many national advantages and are themselves drawing the lines, Democrats would have you believe that gerrymandering is the cruelest thing this side of North Korean dictatorships.

When Bill Clinton was president, Republicans merrily stonewalled his judicial nominees. Now that George Bush is in office, Democrats are returning the favor - and all of a sudden, Republicans are rending their garments in anguish over this monumental slap at the democratic process.

No Democrat can give you a good argument why it was OK to gerrymander then, but not now. No Republican can offer a remotely plausible explanation why it was fair to block Clinton's appointees, but it's unfair to block Bush's.

To the degree that Americans care anymore, they see through this for what it is: Raw power grabbing - winning for the sake of winning - and largely irrelevant to their own personal lives. The power grabbers, for their part, don't particularly mind, because people who are turned off to the process tend not to vote - so they are largely irrelevant to the politicians' own lives.

Filibusters aren't entirely without value, but as Mark Twain said about the housefly, they come close.

Certainly the Founding Fathers envisioned and practiced long, healthy debate. But the idea of a measure being talked to death isn't exactly at the top of the constitution.

Filibusters, from the Dutch word for "pirate," didn't become institutionalized until the mid-1800s. They didn't have any form of official sanction until 1872, when a vice president by the name of Schuyler Colfax ruled it undignified to tell a U.S. Senator to shut up - so long as the debate was relevant to the bill.

Of course that didn't stick. The late Sen. Strom Thurmond, filibustering against Civil Rights legislation in the '50s, would read Shakespeare and recipes for his favorite southern foods. He still holds the record for longest uninterrupted speech, more than 24 hours.

In fact, it was the Southern senators' filibustering of Civil Rights laws that got the ball rolling toward quashing filibusters on the vote of three-fifths of the senators instead of the onerous two-thirds. (Which, incidentally, is the same ratio Miller is seeking to impose).

Anything that cuts down on filibustering is fine by me, although you know if Mooney had the majority and Miller the minority they would quite comfortably be taking positions 180 degrees from their current stances.

Traditionally, filibusters aren't announced until after a bill has been filed, so Mooney's mistake was to plot to filibuster bills that haven't even been approved by committee yet, and making the whole purpose appear to be less about laws and more about painting opponents into corners which could be hyped on campaign brochures.

The great lions of the Congress like Everett Dirksen and Sam Rayburn could be as partisan as they come. But at the end of the day, they would cross the aisle and say "OK, enough squabbling, now let's get together and solve some problems."

And the problems to which they referred were those of the people, not those of their own power lust or upcoming re-election campaigns.

Small wonder people had more faith in government back then.

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