Friday, June 03, 2005

Filibuster mania

Yesterday Powerline pointed out that Sidney Blumenthal, ex-Clinton aide and current columnist for The Guardian, has been peddling misinformation about the whole filibuster imbroglio to his British audience. The Guardian is not the only outlet here that covered the issue, nor, unfortunately, do they win the prize for the most ill-informed coverage of it. That distinction must surely belong to the BBC, which published at least 3 separate articles on the filibuster fight, each of which was as bad as the last.

The first article, written by Justin Webb back in April, portrays the filibuster as a warm-hearted American tradition, and puts forward Senator Robert Byrd as a loveable practioner and defender of it in the mold of Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Unfortunately, Webb fails to inform his readers that the filibuster which Byrd, a former member of the KKK, so fondly remembers was in fact his attempt to prevent passage of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Bill. I guess filling his readers in on that fact would have detracted a bit from the warm and cuddly feeling the reader is suppose to get. Besides, he had more important facts to focus on, like the fact that this “plot to ban the filibuster” had been hatched on behalf of “evangelical Christians who desperately want President Bush's conservative judges to get into the courts and start dispensing their kind of justice.” Riiiight.

The BBC's next attempt to explain the issue came at the hands of one James Coomarasamy. This was a less flippant and, on the surface at least, more in-depth analysis than what Webb could muster of what was going on. But still it failed utterly to capture the reality of the situation. Apart from the usual imbalances and leading language common to biased reporting, along with outright factual errors (he claims that the term "nuclear option" derives from the "destructive power" of eliminating the filibuster), Coomarasamy fails to note some of the most relevant points of the dispute: how historically rare, prior its most recent application, the use of the filibuster has been with regard to judicial nominations; the recent politicization of the judicial approval process (both among Republicans and Democrats); the fact that the Republican proposal applied only to filibusters on judicial nominations. But his most egreious error is that he totally miscontrues the American notion of checks and balances. He rightly points out that America "holds its system of checks and balances in high regard", but is apparently under the misconception that "checks and balances" refers to the minority party's ability to constrain the power of the majority, rather than what it actually refers to...the ability of various branches of government to constrain the power of other branches. This confusion leads him to imply that the divisiveness over the issue derives from the fact that the Republican plan threatens the cherished checks and balances. That claim is simply ridiculous, but it of course leaves the impression of the Republicans as a threat to the "system".

Finally, on the back of the Gang of 14 deal last week which averted a vote on the "nuclear option", the BBC gave the topic one more shot, although this time the article was, perhaps understandably, not attributed to any specific author. The article allows unnamed Democrats to "point out" that 1) the filibuster was used by Republicans against Bill Clinton's nominees (the same claim propagated by Blumenthal in the Guardian) and 2) that there is little difference between the ratio of blocked nominations under Bush and that under Clinton. How one can sensibly "point out" things that are demonstrably false is unclear to me. (Can one "point out" that the sun rises in the west?) But the biggest whopper came with this claim by the BBC itself:

If the Republican side had gone ahead, in a plan which would have used the vote of Vice-President Dick Cheney to declare the filibuster unconstitutional, the upshot could have been to freeze Senate business altogether.

One barely knows where to begin to unravel this one.

1) Cheney doesn't even have a vote unless there is a tie, which was hardly part of the "plan".

2) The proposal was nothing more than an attempt to change Senate rules. It had absolutely nothing to do with declaring anythign "unconstitutional".

3) The only way Senate business might have been frozen would have been if Democrats had implemented their plan to, well, freeze Senate business in response.

A whole trifecta of errors all in one simple sentence. If the BBC was this efficient in running its more general affairs, it probably wouldn't have to be sacking people.


Anonymous Mark Miller said...

Re: Checks and balances refers to the minority's right to restrain the majority vs. different branches of government restraining each other

Just to clarify, yes, typically "checks and balances" refers to different branches of the government being a check on each other. The Founders did believe in minority rights, hence the statement of rights (commonly called "Bill of Rights") in the Constitution, and even in the idea that on a few rare occasions the minority could win politically, but that in the general case the majority should rule. I would call attention to the 2000 presidential election as a case in point. As you know the electoral college system is not a straight majority-rule system, though it does generally come out that way. 2000 was the exception, allowing a minority (if you count the vote tallies nationwide) to win. It's a rarity though.

The same goes with the filibuster. It's been left in because it occasionally allows the minority to win against the majority in a political contest. It should not be allowed to become the rule, however. That would be a perversion of our democracy.

1:10 AM  

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