Just As I Thought

The end of the minority

An example of how the Republicans have changed the rules to create their permanent majority, this one outlining the process of confirming judges. As we know, Democrats have been filibustering to keep certain extreme ideologues from taking the bench; the Republicans wring their hands and complain, even though the right did the same thing to Bill Clinton. Let’s see how they’ve changed the rules over time:

Originally, after Republicans gained control of the Senate in the 1994 elections and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch assumed control of the Judiciary Committee, the rule regarding judicial nominees was this: If a single senator from a nominee’s home state objected to (or “blue-slipped”) a nomination, it was dead. This rule made it easy for Republicans to obstruct Clinton’s nominees.

But in 2001, when a Republican became president, Hatch suddenly reversed course and decided that it should take objections from both home-state senators to block a nominee. That made it harder for Democrats to obstruct George W. Bush’s nominees.

In early 2003 Hatch went even further: Senatorial objections were merely advisory, he said. Even if both senators objected to a nomination, it could still go to the floor for a vote.

Finally, a few weeks later, yet another barrier was torn down: Hatch did away with “Rule IV,” which states that at least one member of the minority has to agree in order to end discussion about a nomination and move it out of committee.

These rule changes aren’t a direct explanation for every Democratic filibuster. In fact, some of the filibustered judges have been approved by both of their home-state senators, so they wouldn’t have been blue-slipped in any case.

But Democratic frustration is still understandable. For better or worse, the Senate has long been dominated by rules that give minorities considerable power over the legislative and appointment process. The usual justification for this is that it forces compromise and curbs extremism.

When Democrats were in the majority, Republicans defended these traditional Senate rules and used them freely to block judges they had strong objections to. But when they became the majority party themselves, they gradually decided the rules should no longer be allowed to get in the way of unbridled majority power. It was only after Democrats were left with no other way to object to activist judges that they resorted to their last remaining option: the filibuster.

Now, the Republicans are preparing to remove the ancient Senate rule allowing the filibuster, once and for all removing any protection for the minority. The beauty of our system is that the minority is always protected to some extent and has a voice, both in Congress and the citizenry at large. That aspect of our nation will soon disappear under Republican rule.

Given this history, fair-minded Republicans would be better advised to restore some of the rules they themselves once defended so fervently than to attempt to tear down the last one remaining. After all, no majority lasts forever. Legislators should keep in mind the question posed by Thomas More in “A Man for All Seasons” when his daughter’s suitor says he would cut down every last law to get at the Devil. “And when the last law was down,” More asks, “and the Devil turned round on you, where would you hide?”

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