Politics & Policy

Play with Fire, Get Nuked

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Reuters photo: Aaron P. Bernstein)
The continuing contraction of the filibuster results from its continuing misuse.

Mitch McConnell did the right thing by deploying “the nuclear option,” taking away the filibuster as a tool of Democratic obstruction in the matter of Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

But we should take a moment to mourn the filibuster nonetheless.

And we ought to take a much longer moment to mourn the collapse of a political culture that produced leaders with senses of responsibility sufficient to be trusted with such a tool.

We sometimes speak of organizations that run “like a fine-tuned machine.” Our federal government is not one of those organizations, though it is, as democratic republics go, arguably the finest machine going and the oldest extant design. In that it is a little like the Porsche 911. Do you know what the most expensive performance option currently offered on a Porsche 911 is? Superior brakes. As passengers in my beloved 1982 Honda Prelude learned from time to time, an excellent machine that can accelerate but cannot quite stop provides a dangerous and terrifying ride.

The Senate, with its minority-empowering rules and procedures, is one of the federal government’s most important brakes. Every branch has a brake: The president has his veto, the Supreme Court is pretty much all brake, and the legislative branch has a complex braking mechanism: Congress is divided against itself, with the unruly and robustly democratic House often frustrated — by design — by the Senate, which before the direct election of its members had an even less democratic character than it does today. (The 17th Amendment is a scar on the Constitution and one of the worst of the idealistic measures of the Progressive era; surely Republicans looking at the current situation in the state legislatures must lament it.) The committee structure is another important decelerator.

The filibuster gets a bad rap, in no small part because Democrats have used it to nasty ends. The most infamous filibuster was Strom Thurmond’s 24-hour-plus assault against Republican civil-rights legislation being shepherded through Congress by the Eisenhower administration with the assistance of Richard Nixon. Huey Long, the subtropical Bernie Sanders, used the filibuster to keep control over patronage jobs in Louisiana. I personally prefer the Republican filibuster, especially the one during which Senator Rand Paul attempted to browbeat his less courageous colleagues into submission by reading them my columns. That was a good filibuster.

Senator Paul was working to draw attention to the serious question of the U.S. government’s conducting drone assassinations around the world, a project that has included the extrajudicial killing of U.S. citizens. That’s a real issue. Senator Alfonse D’Amato (remember him?), a New York Republican (remember those?), read his colleagues the phone book in his stand against a military-spending bill, and Fighting Bob La Follette, a Wisconsin Republican who was not as fond of fighting as his nickname implied, filibustered against a measure that he believed would draw the United States into the war against Germany in 1917. That’s consequential stuff.

Chuck Schumer is full of a different kind of stuff.

There isn’t a serious case to be made against Neil Gorsuch, who was unanimously confirmed to the federal bench — not a single Democratic holdout — only a few years ago. Democrats might complain that this is only a tit-for-tat payback for Republicans’ doing to Barack Obama what Joe Biden dreamed of doing to George H. W. Bush in 1992. And the people who conducted the shameful jihad against Robert Bork and who manufactured a phony sexual-harassment case against Clarence Thomas can hardly cry “They started it!” If you want to complain about the ugliness surrounding Supreme Court nominations, go dig up Teddy Kennedy’s wretched old bones and yell at them.

But here’s the thing: Congress is known to do really dumb things from time to time. (Muppet News Flash!) Majorities often are even dumber than minorities, and, at the risk of resorting to shallow bipartisanship, there is no reason to believe that a stampeding herd of elephants is any less of a danger to our liberties and property than is a stampeding herd of jackasses. It would be good to have an instrument empowering the occasional sober senator to stand up from time to time and say, “I know that there are 51 of you in favor of this, but I am not entirely sure that we should trade the contents of Fort Knox for a bag of magic beans.”

A filibuster, a majority, a committee chairmanship, a loaded gun: Each of these deserves to be handled with care and with prudence, a commodity for which there simply is no substitute. George Washington is supposed to have said that government is “like fire, a dangerous servant and a fearful master.” Sometimes, people who play with fire get burned.

Sometimes, they get nuked.

— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.


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