By: Marc H. Morial
President and CEO
National Urban League
There is far more at stake in the bitter clash over judicial nominations in the United States Senate than the fate of a few judges. That clash has provoked the GOP threat of changing the Senate rules to bar the use of the 60-vote filibuster and make Senate approval of a nominee a matter of a straight majority vote.
That threat, however, has wrongly put at risk Senate traditions—and American political traditions—that are rooted in the fundamental principle of governmental checks and balances
Proponents of the so-called nuclear option have sought to cloak their claims with references to the historic civil rights struggles of the 1960s. But, as the president and CEO of the National Urban League, one of the nation's oldest and most respected civil rights organizations, I say to America: Don't believe the hype!
The filibuster, despite its checkered past, was and remains an important tool to protect the rights of the minority party, whether Democratic or Republican; and it's one of the rules which has made the Senate the greatest deliberative body in the world.
Yes, the filibuster was used in the past to temporarily thwart civil rights legislation—as in 1957 when Senator Strom Thurmond staged the longest filibuster in Senate history against a civil rights bill.
But that obstructionism was overcome by bipartisan pressure from voters outside the Congress and a bipartisan effort within it to ensure that all Americans should enjoy full rights of citizenship.
In those years, although the Senate's rules made achieving the goals of the civil rights movement tougher, civil rights advocates didn't propose throwing out the rules to get their way. They just worked harder with Senate giants like Everett Dirksen, the Illinois Republican, and Lyndon Johnson, the Texas Democrat, to win the old fashioned way: by earning it honestly.
How many of the Senators who now claim that the "nuclear option" is a blow for civil rights demanded an up-or-down vote on the 2004 Fairness Act, one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation in years?
That legislation—which would have guaranteed equal access to publicly-funded services, protection for older workers, remedies for on-the-job discrimination, and equal pay for women in the workforce—languished and eventually died in the Senate, the victim of the leadership's failure to allow a vote. Yet now, some seek to discard a time-tested Senate tradition and principle of democracy in order to promote judges with a proven hostility toward civil rights.
One such judge is Terrence Boyle, of North Carolina. Not only has Judge Boyle demonstrated an antagonism toward civil rights and an unwillingness to follow the law (his rulings have been reversed more than 150 times), his own nomination was possible only because Senator Jesse Helms, of North Carolina, exercised his own personal filibuster to prevent the integration of the previously all-white U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.
For years, Senator Helms single-handedly blocked several highly qualified nominees from North Carolina—including a woman and three African-Americans. Not one of these nominees ever got a vote from the Senate. As a result, the seat remained open for more than six years—long enough for Helms' hand-picked protégé to fill it.
Polls show a majority of the American people understand that a wrong is being proposed here.
A recent Washington Post/ABC News Poll found that the public opposes changing the Senate rules on the filibuster by a 2 to 1 margin. Those opposed included 8 of 10 who identified themselves as Democrats; 7 of 10 who identified themselves as Independents, and nearly half of those who identified themselves as Republicans.
In other words, the American people overwhelmingly understand that such long-standing Senate rules as the filibuster ensure that all voices, even those in the minority, are heard and respected; and that without them, the Senate merely becomes a rubber stamp. They realize that to eliminate a 200-year-old tradition that protects the rights of the minority in a deliberative body for short-term political game is being dangerously shortsighted. Such an attempt is especially rash, given that the Senate has approved more than 90 percent of the Administration's 200-plus nominees for the federal trial and appellate courts.
My hope is that Senate leaders will listen to the echoes of history and put aside the threat of the nuclear option so that Congress can get back to the issues America is most concerned about.
Secondly my hope is, as this debate continues, those invoking the great civil rights struggles of the last century will realize their arguments fly in the face of the courage shown by its leaders then. Those activists understood the value of tradition and what traditions were worth keeping, even when such traditions seemed momentarily to be obstacles.
Those leaders also had enough faith in their own cause to depend for its success upon the intelligence, decency and will of the American people.
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