America Is One Step Closer to a One-Party Tyranny

November 21, 2013, may be another date that will live in infamy.  Instead of conventional bombs and aerial torpedoes exploding at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the "nuclear option" went off in the U.S. Senate at Washington, D.C.

By a 52-48 vote, the Senate voted to change the institution's regulations related to the filibuster, thereby emasculating a political minority's ability to thwart, or at least delay, majoritarian dictatorship.  A Senate minority can no longer thwart the president's nominations of judges to lesser federal courts or of executive department officials.

Although the filibuster can still be used in cases of nominations for the Supreme Court and of substantive legislation, the Senate's historic power of "advise and consent" has been narrowed to just "consent" in many, perhaps most, cases.  The Senate, once said to be the world's greatest deliberative body, has been reduced to the president's rubber stamp.  Furthermore, if the Senate's rules -- originally written by Thomas Jefferson -- can be changed at the majority leader's whim, what is to prevent them being altered again, even to the point of eliminating the filibuster, which used to be called "the soul of the Senate"?

If Harry Reid's assault on representative government, which was probably an attempt to distract public opinion from ObamaCare, remains in place, American politics will be forever changed...for the worse.

To comprehend the severity of the damage Reid and his minions have done, we need to explore the nature of representative government.

Whether the American regime is called a democracy -- the most widely used term -- or a representative republic -- a less often used, but more accurate, descriptor -- it must confront a dilemma that is virtually "baked into" this form of government: the inevitable tension between majority rule and minority rights.

Differences between the ways the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate have traditionally dealt with the tension between majority rule and minority rights constitute a microcosm of what not to do and what to do.

Initially, the rules in both houses of Congress allowed extended debate.  As the size of the House grew, however, resort to filibuster fell out of use.  The House changed its rules to end the filibuster in 1842.  Due mostly to its size -- now 435 voting members -- the House's rules about speech and debate are much more severe than the Senate's.

One consequence has been that the House is much more a majoritarian institution than the Senate.  In recent years, especially when the majority party has enjoyed a substantial margin of seats, the minority party has been virtually powerless.  Regardless of the majority party's label, house members from the "loyal opposition" have moaned -- very often with good reason -- that they are powerless.  They might as well not show up.

Until November 21, the Senate was much more congenial to numerical minorities.  The Senate's rules -- #XXII, specifically -- permitted extended debate, which boils down to granting the right to a minority -- of one, perhaps -- to hold up action on a bill or presidential nomination favored by a majority in the Senate (and perhaps in the country as well).

At the risk of boring the cognoscenti who know all about the topic, let's briefly sketch the Senate's legislative procedure.  At that, I deal only with how the Senate's legislative processes can be slowed or even stopped.

Assume that a minority of the Senate, perhaps just one senator, opposes something coming before the institution: a substantive bill, a presidential nomination, or a treaty.  Before November 21, Senate rules permitted that minority (however small) to speak (about anything, literally) for as long as they/he/she could, provided they/he/she "had the floor."

If you want to see how this process worked, get the 1939 movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and watch Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) tie the Senate in knots.  (The record for the longest one-man filibuster was in 1957, when Strom Thurmond -- then a Democrat from South Carolina -- railed for 24 hours and 18 minutes against a proposed civil rights bill.  Thurmond's fellow "Dixiecrats" helped tie up the Senate for 57 days that year.)

To end an ongoing filibuster, the Senate's rules used to require a petition signed by 16 senators for a vote of "cloture."  Until 1975, two thirds of the Senate had to vote for cloture, after which the rules allowed for only 30 more hours of debate.  Then there had to be an up-or-down vote (on the bill, nomination, treaty, whatever).  The Senate's rules were changed in 1975 to allow a three-fifths vote to invoke cloture.

Although the Senate once require a two-thirds majority to change the its rules, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Ballin (1892) that a simple majority vote would suffice.

Like it or not, Reid and his backers can (and probably already have) cited that case to justify what they did on November 21.  Reid, et al., along with Obama, bloviated about "majority rule" and "democracy" to buttress the move.

But what about the minority's rights?  Never mind that when they took over the Senate after the 2006 midterm elections, Reid solemnly promised he would protect the minority's rights.  Never mind that many of the more senior Democrat senators who voted with Reid on November 21 railed against the GOP then-majority's threats to use the "nuclear option" when the at-the-time Democrat minority thwarted confirmation votes on George W. Bush's judicial nominees.  Then they claimed to worry about minority rights.

There will be practical political consequences of Reid's change of Senate rules.  Two have already discussed on The American Thinker's blog.  Rosslyn Smith notes that Democrat senators from red states will have to vote on Obama's left-wing judicial and executive branch nominees.  If they vote against, leftist special interest groups may primary them.  If they vote in favor, they risk openly flouting public opinion back home.  In addition, by making it easier for an overbearing majority to pass major legislation without bipartisan support, Reid's rule change will probably result in less stable government.  Rick Moran writes that the new Senate rule means "[w]e have a full blown tyranny of the majority."

A major reason why the filibuster has been so negatively perceived in recent decades is because it was a favorite tactic of southern Democrat racists trying to prevent the passage of civil rights legislation.  The image of Jefferson Smith filibustering corrupt legislation was long ago replaced by that of Strom Thurmond opposing the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

We tend to forget that the Senate's rule permitting extended debate was intended to be a formidable weapon against majority tyranny.

Too many Americans blithely assume that something favored by a majority must ipso facto be good.  What if the majority is wrong?  What if, for example, the majority backs a charismatic tyrant?

Thanks to Harry Reid and his minions, we may find out.

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