Commentary Magazine


Topic: everyday tool

He Was for It Before He Was Against It

Paul Krugman’s opinion of the Senate filibuster depends on who might use it. Today he is against it.

America is caught between severe problems that must be addressed and a minority party determined to block action on every front. Doing nothing is not an option …

And last Friday, he was against it:

Beyond that, we need to take on the way the Senate works. The filibuster, and the need for 60 votes to end debate, aren’t in the Constitution. They’re a Senate tradition, and that same tradition said that the threat of filibusters should be used sparingly. Well, Republicans have already trashed the second part of the tradition: look at a list of cloture motions over time, and you’ll see that since the G.O.P. lost control of Congress it has pursued obstructionism on a literally unprecedented scale. So it’s time to revise the rules.

In 2005, however, when the Senate had a Republican majority, Krugman thought that only the filibuster saved us from government by extremists: “But the big step by extremists will be an attempt to eliminate the filibuster, so that the courts can be packed with judges less committed to upholding the law.” (h/t James Taranto)

Krugman’s intellectual inconsistency is at least consistent with that of his employer. On November 28, 2004, with Republicans in the White House and running Congress, the filibuster was a fundamental part of the Founders’ plan, according to the Times:

The Republicans see the filibuster as an annoying obstacle. But it is actually one of the checks and balances that the founders, who worried greatly about concentration of power, built into our system of government. It is also, right now, the main means by which the 48 percent of Americans who voted for John Kerry can influence federal policy. People who call themselves conservatives should find a way of achieving their goals without declaring war on one of the oldest traditions in American democracy.

But on March 1, 2009, with Democrats running everything in Washington, the Times had changed its mind, calling the filibuster a “self-inflicted wound.”

… the use of the filibuster as an everyday tool of legislation stands the idea of democratic government on its head. Instead of majority rule in the Senate, the tyranny of the minority prevails.

The filibuster is merely a Senate rule, not part of the Constitution. But the Founders did conceive of the Senate as “the saucer in which to cool the coffee.” And the filibuster facilitates by giving the minority increased power to affect legislation in ways that it favors, moving the legislation towards the center. What the Times and Krugman were attempting to justify in 2004 and 2005, however, was the use of the filibuster to prevent a vote on judicial nominations. And while legislation can be compromised, nominations cannot. The nominee is either appointed or he is not. So when the minority uses the filibuster to prevent an up-or-down vote on a nominee, it is, indeed, a “tyranny of the minority” and fundamentally undemocratic.

Paul Krugman’s opinion of the Senate filibuster depends on who might use it. Today he is against it.

America is caught between severe problems that must be addressed and a minority party determined to block action on every front. Doing nothing is not an option …

And last Friday, he was against it:

Beyond that, we need to take on the way the Senate works. The filibuster, and the need for 60 votes to end debate, aren’t in the Constitution. They’re a Senate tradition, and that same tradition said that the threat of filibusters should be used sparingly. Well, Republicans have already trashed the second part of the tradition: look at a list of cloture motions over time, and you’ll see that since the G.O.P. lost control of Congress it has pursued obstructionism on a literally unprecedented scale. So it’s time to revise the rules.

In 2005, however, when the Senate had a Republican majority, Krugman thought that only the filibuster saved us from government by extremists: “But the big step by extremists will be an attempt to eliminate the filibuster, so that the courts can be packed with judges less committed to upholding the law.” (h/t James Taranto)

Krugman’s intellectual inconsistency is at least consistent with that of his employer. On November 28, 2004, with Republicans in the White House and running Congress, the filibuster was a fundamental part of the Founders’ plan, according to the Times:

The Republicans see the filibuster as an annoying obstacle. But it is actually one of the checks and balances that the founders, who worried greatly about concentration of power, built into our system of government. It is also, right now, the main means by which the 48 percent of Americans who voted for John Kerry can influence federal policy. People who call themselves conservatives should find a way of achieving their goals without declaring war on one of the oldest traditions in American democracy.

But on March 1, 2009, with Democrats running everything in Washington, the Times had changed its mind, calling the filibuster a “self-inflicted wound.”

… the use of the filibuster as an everyday tool of legislation stands the idea of democratic government on its head. Instead of majority rule in the Senate, the tyranny of the minority prevails.

The filibuster is merely a Senate rule, not part of the Constitution. But the Founders did conceive of the Senate as “the saucer in which to cool the coffee.” And the filibuster facilitates by giving the minority increased power to affect legislation in ways that it favors, moving the legislation towards the center. What the Times and Krugman were attempting to justify in 2004 and 2005, however, was the use of the filibuster to prevent a vote on judicial nominations. And while legislation can be compromised, nominations cannot. The nominee is either appointed or he is not. So when the minority uses the filibuster to prevent an up-or-down vote on a nominee, it is, indeed, a “tyranny of the minority” and fundamentally undemocratic.

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