Thursday, February 25, 2010

George Will's Filibuster Bluster


You can always count on George Will for a good laugh. He's more predictable than a broken watch. Talking about a possible Senate amendment to the Senate's existing healthcare reform bill, Will writes,
If the Senate parliamentarian rules, as he should, that most of the legislation is ineligible for enactment under reconciliation, the vice president, as Senate president, can overrule the parliamentarian. This has not happened since 1975, but liberals say desperate times require desperate measures.
George Will and his amazing crystal ball - he knows what will be in a bill that hasn't been finalized, knows that it will be "ineligible for enactment under reconciliation", and frets that Joe Biden will pull a move last perpetrated by... a Republican. To tie this to another of Will's faux controversies, if we don't do something about the steam coming out of Will's ears, even he may come to believe that global warming is caused by man.

As you have probably predicted, Will quickly resorts to his usual tactic of "making stuff up"
Some liberals argue that the Constitution is unconstitutional. Their reasoning is a non sequitur: The Constitution empowers each chamber to "determine the rules of its proceedings." It requires five supermajorities (for ratifying treaties, endorsing constitutional amendments, overriding vetoes, expelling members and impeachment convictions). Therefore it does not permit requiring a sixth, to end filibusters.
If you're a follower here, you know that I'm not impressed by straw man / "hollow man" arguments that "some people" do or believe one thing or another, "completely inventing an opponent and an opponent's argument, and then attacking that and claiming victory". (I love how Will refers to the non sequitur - The Nonsequitur is a blog he would benefit from, even if he is a frequent target of its analyses of bad logic.) What liberals make this argument? From what I can see, the population is limited to a set of imaginary voices contained within George Will's head.
Liberals also say the filibuster exacerbates the Senate's flaw as "inherently unrepresentative." That is, the Founders -- who liberals evidently believe were dolts or knaves -- designed it to represent states rather than, as the House does, population.
From the Hollow Man to a cross between an appeal to authority and... whoah - was that a non-sequitur?
A. The Founding Fathers intended the Senate to represent states rather than being apportioned by the population of each state;
B. The Senate's filibuster rule is opposed by liberals on grounds unrelated to how Senators are selected;
C. ?????
D. Therefore, liberals think the Founding Fathers were dolts or knaves.
Um... yeah.
Liberals fret: 41 senators from the 21 smallest states, with barely 10 percent of the population, could block a bill.
Another hollow man. Sure, I've heard people criticize the filibuster on the basis that it gives disproportionate power to states that have small populations; but that's not "fretting" - it's a description of what can actually happen. We're back to the way Will addresses global warming - he starts by ignoring the facts, then proceeds into an attack on people who have the temerity to speak from the facts. Moreover, as Will concedes, it's hardly the case that the Democrats were the first to question the filibuster and, in fact, past Republican attacks were overtly directed at its constitutionality. Will writes,
In 2005, many Republicans, frustrated by Democrats blocking confirmation votes, wanted to ban filibusters of judicial nominees. They said such filibusters unconstitutionally prevent the president from doing his constitutional duty of staffing the judiciary.
And thus they called the filibuster undemocratic, called for the Senate to decide certain issues by majority vote, and threatened the "nuclear option" - calling a point of order in the Senate and having Vice President Dick Cheney declare the filibuster of judicial candidates to be unconstitutional. Yet somehow I don't recall this much steam blasting out of Will's ears.... Seriously, compare and contrast his December 6, 2004 Newsweek piece on the nuclear option - he reconsiders his own prior endorsement of ending judicial filibusters, then attempts to take the position of a wise elder, advising his party of choice. The issues may be fundamentally the same but, unless they're doing crazy things like trying to limit corporate campaign contributions, Will can't seem to muster any outrage against Republicans, let alone the ad homimen, straw man, cherry-picked quotes of founding fathers, and other dubious attacks that pepper his editorials about "liberals". Were Will to read the Constitution, he might discover that the Founding Fathers were content to have legislation pass in the Senate based upon a bare majority, with the Vice President voting if necessary to break a tie. Supermajority requirements come from the Senate's own rules.

Viewing his editorial charitably, beyond his contempt for the real and imaginary people he calls "liberals" all Will can be said to have demonstrated is that the Senate's filibuster rule is not inconsistent with the Constitution. He appeared to understand, back when the Republicans were threatening the "nuclear option" that would attack the constitutionality of the filibuster, that we're talking about a Senate rule. The Democrats haven't threatened such a move. They've only indicated that they might move certain legislation through the Senate through the reconciliation process, as George W. Bush frequently did, if they can't obtain a cloture vote and what the Republicans (without any objection from Will that I can recall) used to call an "up or down vote". There is discussion of amendment of the Senate's rules, but I can't think of a single Senator who is calling for more than a modification of the current rule - a rule that has been modified at several points in the Senate's history - as opposed to its abolition. Given that it takes 67 votes to change the rule, and given that the Democratic Party is not echoing the Republican threat to abolish it through a "nuclear option", it seems pretty safe.

The editorial reduces to a sleight of hand by Will - he's conflating the Senate's reconciliation process with the filibuster. Sorry, George, we're talking about two different rules here, even if they (like many other Senate rules) may come into play on the same piece of legislation.

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