Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The damage of the nuclear option
Since the news and bloggers are giving minute-by-minute coverage of Frist's power play and detailed background is available all over the Web*, I'm going to limit my commentary to one thing: the long-term implications.

The top of the list, as both sides know, is that the administration and its supporters get a free hand to nominate judges as radical as they want, with the Supreme Court being the ultimate prize. The Democrats, and the half of the population that they represent, will have no influence on the process. Sure, Frist says we can still talk about it, but the Republicans have made it clear that they aren't going to listen. The last remaining check or balance will be those moderate Republicans willing to break party discipline and risk being cut off from re-election funds. The judiciary will take a hard swing to the radical right as openly ideological judges fill all the vacancies.

Given Bush's propensity to use appointments and announcements for gloating and "in your face" insults, I expect some of the most radical judges to appointed to the bluest states. When Bush cut scheduled civil service raises for the 2004 fiscal year, he chose the Labor Day weekend to make the announcement. When the Bush Justice Department signed on to the lawsuit opposing affirmative action at the University of Michigan, they made the announcement on Martin Luther King Day. Or consider who was offended by the new jobs for Gonzales, Bolton, Negroponte, and Wolfowitz. Though I think Bush's main reason for acting this way is personal and pathological, some of his advisors see a practical benefit in this kind of oafish behavior. It's the stick side of a carrot and stick calculation. Blue states will be punished for electing Democrats by getting the most reactionary judges. I don't think this strategy will work, but I do think they will try it.

Sen. Frist promises that he only intends to end the filibuster for judicial appointments and that he has no desire to end it for legislation (I'm not aware of saying anything one way or the other about other types of appointments). How believable is that? Once the majority gets a taste of completely ignoring half the country in one thing, how long will they bother to give us any consideration in any thing else?

The implications of this action extend far beyond the single political issue of judicial appointments or the parliamentary issue of filibuster. The very means they plan to use to remove the filibuster is against the rules. They plan to ignore the Seneate parliamentarian and the two-thirds vote necessary for a rule change and get the President of the Senate (Dick Cheney) to declare that they can change rules with a simple majority. This precedent will allow any simple majority to change the rules in any manner they want at any time they want.

Democracy is an inherently weak form of government. It only works as long as everyone involved agrees to show some restraint and respect the rules. Even cheating in a democracy is limited by an unspoken agreement about what constitutes going too far. Europe learned how easy it is for an unscrupulous, but determined, minority to undermine and destroy a democracy once in Central Europe in the thirties and again in Eastern Europe after the war.

To me, the bottom line is that if Frist gets his way on this, all minority protections are out the window. This is not about the rights of a group of Senators, it is about the rights of that half of the population that they represent. The half of the population that gets a bare majority in congress gets to do whatever it wants, without concession, without compromise, without respect to rules, or to traditional courtesy. The era of checks and balances will be over. Once they are gone, it will be very hard to bring them back.

* Except at CNN. Every time I've cruised by there today, the lead story has been the "Star Wars" premier.

No comments: