A Molly Moment: The Filibuster Fight
by Rachel Jaffe
Published: May 23, 2005
We've come to the end of another Reality TV season. We've seen the season finale for Survivor, The Amazing Race, and The Apprentice, and will soon see the American Idol and Contender finales.
But last week the Reality TV that most riveted me was C-Span's coverage of the Senate discussions regarding the President's contested judicial nominees and the threatened "nuclear option" to abolish the filibuster in that context.
For those unfamiliar with the fight, here's a bare-bones outline. Under the Constitution, the President nominates judges with the "advice and consent" of the Senate. Currently, the Senate is considering seven appellate judicial nominees that were re-submitted by the President after they failed to be confirmed during the last term. There are now 55 Republicans in the Senate, enough to win a majority vote if a vote goes along party lines. But under the Senate rules, it takes 60 votes to end a filibuster, or unlimited debate, which means that the Democrats have enough votes to keep debate from being curtailed and a confirmation vote from going forward. The Republicans have threatened what they termed the "nuclear option," which would involve a change in Senate rules so that a judicial filibuster can be broken by a simple majority. (For more background, I'd recommend searching in Google News for articles on the "nuclear option" or "filibuster".)
As with a Survivor finale, it's fascinating to see how issues can be framed and reframed. On Survivor, we've seen players argue that those who have worked hard and are good people deserve the money, and we've seen players argue that it's gamesmanship that should be rewarded. Some will promote themselves to succeed; others demean their opposition. Were alliances broken or honored, or were there ever alliances to begin with?
Those same elements have come into play with the filibuster discussion, as Republicans and Democrats take turns presenting their arguments. For some, it's a matter of whether the President is allowed his choice of judges (although that in turn leads to the question of how much latitude he is allowed); for others, it's a matter of whether the filibuster is a permissible tool. Some argue heatedly that the filibuster is necessary to preserve the rights of the minority, while others argue just as heatedly that it is being used to create a tyranny of the minority. Some claim the rules change contemplated by the "nuclear option" is perfectly valid, while others submit that enacting it means violating the internal rules of the Senate in a way that's unprecedented. Does the Senate's role of "advise and consent" mean that getting nominees to a vote is paramount? Or is it even more central to the Senate's role that it preserve its tradition of respecting minority opinion and its role as a deliberative body (in contrast the House of Representative's proportional representation and limited debate)?
There have been wonderful, eloquent speeches given -- and rhetoric to rival anything heard on Survivor. You thought nothing could top Sue Hawk's "snakes and rats" speech? How about Rick Santorum's statement on the floor of the Senate that the Democrats' arguments to keep the filibuster were "the equivalent of Adolf Hitler in 1942 saying, 'I'm in Paris. How dare you invade me. How dare you bomb my city? It's mine.' This is no more the rule of the Senate than it was the rule of the Senate before not to filibuster"?
One aspect of Reality TV is its celebration of the Rashomon-like way different participants can view the issues of a time. In watching Reality TV, we absorb and synthesize multiple viewpoints. I'd encourage any other Reality TV fans to tune in to the current drama playing out in the Senate and apply these same skills to an important and historic conundrum -- not least of all because one difference between this "Tribal Council" and that of Survivor's is that this one will have an influence on the entire nation, not just the Reality TV subculture.
In the past week, I've had the opportunity to learn a great deal about the role of the Senate, its history (thank you, Robert Byrd!), and its place among the other branches of United States government. Because it looks like the "nuclear option" will not be pulled before Tuesday (the day designated by a motion for "cloture" (end to debate) filed on Friday pertaining to the nomination of Priscilla Owens), I look forward to at least another day or two of oration. The debate will continue to be broadcast via C-Span and C-Span Radio. For those with sufficient bandwidth, you can listen over the internet at C-Span's web site.