Will: Liberals have had their fill of filibusters

By George Will, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

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Ideas are not responsible for the people who believe them, but when evaluating Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's ideas for making the Senate more like the House of Representatives, consider the source. Reid is just a legislative mechanic trying to make Congress' machinery efficiently responsive to his party's progressivism. And proper progressives think the Constitution, understood as a charter of limited government, is unconstitutional.

They think the "living" Constitution gives government powers sufficient for whatever its ambitions are, enabling it to respond quickly to clamorous majorities. Hence the progressive campaign to substantially weaken the ability of senators to use filibusters to delay action.

Until 1917, it was generally impossible to stop extended Senate debates. Then -- during the administration of Woodrow Wilson, the Democrats' first progressive president -- the Senate adopted the cloture rule whereby debate could be ended by a two-thirds majority vote. In 1975, the requirement was lowered to three-fifths. If there is now another weakening of minority rights, particularly by a change brought about by breaking Senate rules, the Senate will resemble the House. There the majority controls the process and the disregarded minority can only hope to one day become the majority and repay disregard in kind.

Wilson was the first president to criticize the American founding, which he did because the Constitution bristles with delaying and blocking mechanisms, especially the separation of powers. The point of progressivism, say its adherents, is to progress up from the Founders' fetish with limiting government and restraining majorities. Hence progressives' animus against the filibuster, which protects minority rights by allowing for the measurement of intensity as well as mere numbers.

'Dysfunctional Congress'

Since there have been 50 states, Republicans have never had 60 senators. Democrats have had that many after 11 elections. Both parties are situational ethicists regarding the filibuster -- in 2005, a Republican Senate majority threatened to forbid filibusters of judicial nominees during George W. Bush's administration. It is, however, when filibusters impede the liberal agenda that excited editorials are written and solemn seminars are convened to deplore the "constitutional crisis" of a "dysfunctional Congress."

Under Senate rules, it takes 67 votes to change the rules. Reid, however, may decide that in January, on the first day of the new session, the supposedly "new" Senate can adopt new rules by a simple majority.

Conservatives believe that 98 percent of good governance consists of stopping bad -- meaning most -- ideas. So conservatives can tolerate liberal filibusters more easily than liberals, who relish hyperkinetic government, can tolerate conservative filibusters. Come January, 21 of Reid's 55 Democrats will have come to the Senate in 2009 or later. They have never been in the minority. They must remember this: Some day they may be.