Nuclear Options, Thermonuclear Egos
“His mind has been so long used to unlimited applause that it could not brook contradiction…”
While most of America was breathlessly awaiting the latest Andrew Weiner revelations (no, he's not the subject of the above quote) last week the Senate actually did some business by compromising on a slate of Presidential nominees, avoiding the filibuster, and, for now, allowing the Senate to stay out of their well-appointed “Nuclear Option” shelters.
The “Nuclear Option” gets trotted out every couple of years as a threat by the then Senate Majority Leader to change the Senate procedures to limit or even prohibit filibusters. The purpose is to avoid the absurdity of the necessity for 60 votes for every piece of legislation and every Presidential nomination. Why 60? Because 60 is what is needed to invoke cloture, cutting off debate, and allowing the majority to move to an actual vote.
You might search the Constitution far and wide for the word “filibuster” and you will likely find it written in invisible ink, tucked in next to the Hastert Rule. In short, it doesn’t exist as anything more than an ephemeral connection to the lack of limitation on the time for debate in the Senate’s original rules. Like Harvey, the six foot rabbit, it is only real because people say it is.
There is an interesting piece by Thomas Donlan, “No End To The Games” in this week’s Barron’s, in which he calls for bilateral nuclear disarmament. No more filibusters, by either side. Mr. Donlan is a very smart man, and he makes one very interesting point, “Ending the filibuster would help new Senators repeal unpopular legislation, and that would force constructive compromise more effectively that the Senate’s current rule.”
The essence of his argument is very reasonable; a law that is written in an extreme manner causes the electorate to swing in the opposite direction. That should induce the leadership to make Presidential nominations less controversial and legislation more moderate so that both the new laws, and the Senators voting for them, have a better chance hanging around for the long term.
I admire his optimism, but don’t see his model working, at least not right now. The present political culture not only disdains statesmanship, it elevates the Wacko Birds by making them genius folk heroes. They see no obligation to stick to their own word, much less the past promises made by their party.
To my way of thinking, filibusters have a place in unusual circumstances, such as an especially controversial nominee or piece of legislation. But I also acknowledge that my argument lacks a logical consistency. If a Senator, or a political party, lacks the integrity to stick to a deal they made on legislation, why would they stick to a deal they made on filibusters?
In the end, it comes down to people, warts and all, egos and all, to do the right thing. And, even the best can be tempted. Consider the following:
“And be it farther enacted, That if any person shall write, print, utter or publish, or shall cause or procure to be written, printed, uttered or published, or shall knowingly and willingly assist or aid in writing, printing, uttering or publishing any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either house of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States, with intent to defame the said government, or either house of the said Congress, or the said President, or to bring them, or either of them, into contempt or disrepute; or to excite against them, or either or any of them, the hatred of the good people of the United States, or to stir up sedition within the United States, or to excite any unlawful combinations therein, for opposing or resisting any law of the United States, or any act of the President of the United States, done in pursuance of any such law, or of the powers in him vested by the constitution of the United States, or to resist, oppose, or defeat any such law or act, or to aid, encourage or abet any hostile designs of any foreign nation against United States, their people or government, then such person, being thereof convicted before any court of the United States having jurisdiction thereof, shall be punished by a fine not exceeding two thousand dollars, and by imprisonment not exceeding two years.”
That is the text of the last of the Alien and Sedition Acts, signed into law by President John Adams, July 14, 1799.
Imagine that. Criticizing the Congress, or the President, or opposing a law can get you sent to jail for up to two years. Just think of the economic upheaval it would cause today (if nothing else, Fox is a Fortune 500 Company.) You couldn’t build prisons fast enough.
And Mr. Adams used it. 25 critics (mostly aligned with Adam’s rival, Thomas Jefferson) were charged, tried, and, in some cases, eventually jailed. It was a huge issue in the Election of 1800, allowing Jefferson to portray Adams as an elitist tyrant while he was the defender of the virtues of Republican liberty. The Virginian celebrated his victory over Adams by promptly pardoning all those who were convicted and still jailed. He then used the remaining period before the law’s sunset in 1801 to charge some of Adams’s supporters.
By the way, that quote at the top of the page? January, 1797. Thomas Jefferson again, then Secretary of State, referring to George Washington.
Pretty remarkable, isn’t it? We are talking about The Founders. Lovers of liberty. Pledgers of their lives, fortunes and sacred honor. All those memorials, and marble busts, and heroic paintings--what could be more heroic than “Washington Crossing The Delaware”?
All intensely human. Jefferson was ungracious when he spoke of Washington, but more than a little accurate. Adams didn’t lack for self-esteem; he had a genius for political theory but not always for politics. Jefferson was, in the historian Joseph Ellis’s words, an American Sphinx, at once a great idealist and a more-than-occasionally duplicitous and self-serving politician. We could talk about Hamilton, a proto-monarchist who switched sides at a crucial moment during the 1800 election, or Madison, who moved from the Federalist side of the aisle to ultimately drafting the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, which supported nullification and came very close to advocating succession.
Still, put together this cacophony of idealism mixed with ego and ambition and somehow, 237 years later, we are still here, still bickering with each other. Maybe Mr. Donlan is right, and the system will self-correct.
Of course, there are always people like Congressman Steve King (R-Iowa). Mr. King isn’t a fan of immigration. And he’s not a fan of Mexicans, either. And he’s not terribly discreet. In an interview with Newsmax, he argued against the Dream Act. “for everyone who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds — and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”
I love fruit and vegetable references. Very agrarian. Takes you back to a time of yeoman farmers.
Congressman King is running for the open Senate seat in 2014. He has a decent shot at winning.
Now, about that Nuclear Option……