Politics & Policy

Sacred Obstruction

The refuge of losers.

Somewhere, the late Democratic Senator James Eastland deserves an apology. Not because the Mississippi segregationist’s substantive views look any less odious than they did 40 years ago. But because the same progressives who once excoriated the obstructionist tactics he used to block civil-rights bills in the 1960s have come, with the fullness of time, to see the wisdom of his procedural ways.

Eastland, were he still alive, would nod his head as liberals make the Senate filibuster sound like America’s last bulwark against tyranny, and as they conduct a flirtation with states’ rights. Eastland might be bewildered, but relieved that, at long last, his party was breaking his way.

Oh, how times change. Democratic Rep. John Lewis is a heroic emblem of the civil-rights movement. He was beaten with other marchers in Selma, Ala., in 1965, spurring passage of a federal civil-rights law that year premised on the notion that Washington couldn’t trust states like Alabama to protect its citizens. But during the fight over whether the federal government should act to ensure that Terri Schiavo’s right to due process was being honored, Lewis was on the floor of the House pleading, “Where is the respect tonight for states’ rights that we said we hold so dear?” Where, indeed?

Federal intervention in education was once the pride of the left. President Lyndon Johnson made the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, passed in 1965, a crown jewel of the Great Society. It showered federal funding on local school districts, but included a (ineffectual) requirement that states provide evidence that the dollars were working. During the past 15 years, there has been a bipartisan consensus that the federal government should impose tougher standards on the states to ensure that its ever-more-lavish education funding isn’t wasted.

Liberals now rage against this consensus. They borrow a phrase from the anti-federal-government shock troops of Newt Gingrich’s 1994 “revolution”–President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act is an “unfunded mandate,” i.e., compels states to take action without adequately reimbursing them. Never mind that liberal governance since the New Deal has practically been built on such mandates on states and businesses.

When No Child Left Behind comes up for renewal, it might be ripe for a filibuster. The filibuster, which requires 60 votes to be broken, is a useful brake on Senate action. But the paeans to it emanating from the left today are unmatched since Southern editorialists fired up their typewriters in defense of Eastland and fellow obstructionists in the 1960s. It’s as if democracy will end if Bush-nominated judges pass with the support of 51 senators instead of 60.

Democrats call the Republican proposal to block their ability to filibuster judicial nominations, the so-called nuclear option, “unprecedented.” Well, it is. Since prior to Bush’s election the filibuster was never used to routinely block judicial nominations, of course no one ever thought before of ending the possibility of using it for that purpose.

Former Democratic Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell has been trotted out to make the case against the proposed Republican rules change. “Neither I nor any other senator,” he said the other day, recalling his time as majority leader in the early 1990s, “ever dreamed of taking the kind of drastic action now being proposed.” This is laughable. Not only have various proposals to curtail the filibuster been kicked around for years, including one sponsored by Democrats in 1995, but Mitchell himself said of filibusters on CNN in 1994, “We should limit the opportunities for their use much more than is now the case.”

Typical partisan hypocrisy is at play here, of course. Whichever party is in the minority will love the filibuster most. But something deeper is at work too. When you have little positive to offer and the tide of history seems to be moving against you, obstruction–whether through opportunistic federalism or the filibuster–becomes not just a tactic, but a kind of sacred cause. Just ask Senator Eastland.

Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.

(c) 2004 King Features Syndicate


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