Politics & Policy


The bad logic behind the Senate's judge deal.

“We have lifted ourselves above politics,” declared West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd after the “fantastic fourteen” agreed to a compromise on filibusters (note: quotation marks are intended to convey sarcastic scorn).

Here’s a rule of thumb nobody’s bothered to lay out because it’s so obvious: When someone like Byrd says he’s lifted himself above politics, watch your wallet.

Now, as they say, the Senate can get back to “the people’s business.” Which means, as far as Byrd is concerned, getting back to the business of transferring the federal treasury wholesale to the state of West Virginia.

But enough about the only known surviving dinosaur from the Cretaceous period. I’m troubled by the filibuster compromise, although not so much because the Republicans seem to have settled for somewhere between a quarter and a third of a loaf. As it happens, the deal vexes a lot of liberals, too. Only time will tell who got the rawer deal here.

Nor is the worst aspect of the compromise the embarrassment the GOP brought upon itself with its inept rhetoric. Ever since they moronically coined and popularized the phrase “nuclear option,” the Republicans were destined to look bad. Implicit in the phrase is the notion that the Republicans were the ones determined to do something radical and dangerous, even though it was the Democrats who were actually promising to “blow up” the Senate.

But nooooo, the Republicans had to come up with a phrase that showed how macho they are, even at the expense of conceding the better part of the argument to the Democrats. Where is the vaunted “message discipline” the Republicans are supposed to have? They couldn’t simply call it the “restore Senate tradition” option? Did they just have to show off their big swinging nuclear options?

The most annoying thing about the compromise, I believe, is the logic underneath it.

First, there’s the abiding faith–eternally celebrated by the press–that compromise is always and everywhere a good thing. If I say two plus two equals four, and you say two plus two equals one billion, is it really such a great advance to split the difference and agree that it’s somewhere near 500 million? The media’s love of compromise is the moral hazard that comes from always seeking both sides of an issue. The press should seek both sides, of course, but it shouldn’t conclude that simply because each side has good arguments that both are right, or that splitting the difference is enlightened. The media sees such blurring as wisdom, when really it’s cynicism.

A second and related annoying assumption is that arguments are bad. Whether you think the Democrats were right or the Republicans were, their disagreement over judicial nominations was healthy. It informed the public about extent of judicial power today. For the first time in a generation (at least), Democrats were speaking eloquently about the glories of constitutional tradition and the need for the Senate to curb government activism. I may disagree with the substance of many of their points, but this was a grand teaching moment for the public and both parties. But nooooo, once again, the assumption was that arguments are a danger to the republic.

I’m sorry, but the Senate is a debating society. Its job is to debate and then vote on the strength of the arguments presented. Comity and collegiality are fine, but they are supposed to elevate the arguments, not obviate them.

Besides, it is far more dangerous when democracies choose not to have arguments. This is because political arguments represent conflicts of legitimate interests and legitimate perspectives. Intellectually shabby compromises by their very nature don’t settle the disagreements, they merely postpone and exacerbate them.

For example, for more than a decade there’s been a growing consensus that the Supreme Court’s compromise on Roe vs. Wade made things worse in this country. It robbed the people of their right to settle this question democratically in their own communities. In response, the pro-life and pro-choice movements were born, and our politics have been the worse for it. Indeed, that’s the great irony here. This filibuster fight itself is the bastard of Roe vs. Wade. If the Supreme Court hadn’t declared that the courts were going to decide abortion and issues like it, then judicial nominations wouldn’t be nearly so high-stakes for both sides.

That would have meant forcing the Senate to do what it was meant to do: have a big argument. But that’s too much to hope for if it had to come at the expense of buying gas grills and soft ice-cream machines for every one of Sen. Byrd’s constituents.

(c) 2005 Tribune Media Services


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