Sen. Bill Frist v. John Quincy Adams

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is my favorite movie about the American process, about the beauty of having a system that allows even the tiniest minority of citizens a voice. Thus I found anarticle about Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN) more than a little disturbing. Mr. Frist’s aim, as far as I can tell, is to subdue all those Mr. Smiths who don’t see things his way by ending a longstanding American tradition, the right of filibuster:

“The Senate cannot allow the filibuster of circuit court nominees to continue,” Frist said in a speech for delivery to The Federalist Society, a conservative group. “Nor can we allow the filibuster to extend to potential Supreme Court nominees,” the Tennessee Republican said. A simple majority in the 100-member Senate is needed to confirm a nominee, but 60 votes are required to end a filibuster. Having gained four seats in the Nov. 2 elections, which will increase their Senate majority next year to 55, Republicans have a number of options, a top aide said. They hope enough Democrats, mindful of the election results, will now break ranks and vote to end filibusters against judicial nominees, the aide said” (emphasis added).

Mindful of the election results? What on earth does that mean? Is this not how leaders in dictatorial regimes warn their defeated opponents? To suggest that Democrats abandon their principles and their duties just because they’re outnumbered is to disrespect the democratic process. The right to filibuster is important when senators are bitterly divided on issues (and isn’t our whole nation more divided and antagonistic than ever?), because it prevents one party from silencing the minority view altogether.

Republicans have certainly used the filibuster over the years. Strom Thurmond filibustered for 24 hours and 18 minutes against a civil rights bill. Right or wrong, Thurmond and other Republicans have always had the right of filibuster. It’s not fair to change the rules now.

Just ask my high school history teacher. Mrs. Graham was a Baptist minister’s wife who could be grumpy at times, but never lacked enthusiasm for “the American way”, going on and on about it while we 10th-graders passed notes and watched the clock. I regret that now, because Mrs. Graham knew her stuff. She was ever mindful of “the minority view” and how it can be silenced, even here in the US, when one party gains too much ground and dominates another. “When this happens”, she warned, “you no longer have a true democracy. You have one-party rule.”

One-Party Rule for Conservative Compassion

But maybe that’s what Mr. Frist would prefer:

“If that does not work, the Senate could try to force through a proposed rule change, offered by Frist in May 2003, that could stop a filibuster with a simple-majority vote. A two-thirds vote could be needed to change the rules, however, and Republicans have conceded in the past that they do not have that kind of support. Another possible option would have the Senate chair declare a filibuster against a judicial nominee unconstitutional.”

Unconstitutional? Was Thurmond’s filibuster, as well as those by other Republicans, unconstitutional as well?

“Frist said, “One way or another, the filibuster of judicial nominees must end. The American people have reelected a president and significantly expanded the Senate majority,” Frist said. “It would be wrong to allow a minority to defy the will of a clear and decisive majority …”

“Senate Democrats reject charges of obstructionism, noting they have helped confirm about 200 of Bush’s judicial nominees, producing one of the lowest vacancy rates on the federal bench in years. They also contend that the nominees they filibustered are “right-wing extremists.””

Clear and decisive? Those words are quite troubling when applied to citizens or our representatives. “Clear and decisive” are the very words that Mr. Bush, Mr. Rumsfeld, and all the generals use when they’re preparing us for violent military action. But let’s leave those words behind and look at the next word, the really central word: Majority.

Here’s what we’re not supposed to understand: It is because of the overpowering GOP majority that we need to retain the right of filibuster. That’s the whole point of the thing-to give the minority a voice. This is especially important when it comes to judges, because for decades thereafter their decisions will directly impact Americans’ lives, for good or for ill.

Having worked and volunteered in many VA and general hospitals, I worry especially about the blind opposition to stem cell research that’s a requirement for all of Bush’s nominees. I remember Christopher Reeve’s plea, Nancy Reagan’s plea, and the urgent cries of all those who are struggling with painful, life-taking illnesses that could be relieved through this research.

But the desperate longings of these Americans for something so simple-the best medical care possible, and a chance at recovery and new life-will be denied if the right to filibuster is taken away, because the judges that Bush wants to impose on us have a new kind of compassion that’s called “conservative”. Like the Grinch’s heart that was two sizes too small, conservative compassion isn’t really there at all.

A Model for Our Times: John Quincy Adams’ Fight for the Right of Petition

Mighty resistance movements can arise when opponents go too far in their efforts to silence the minority. According to historian Stanley Elkins (Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life,1959), that’s what happened when another American tradition, the right to petition, was denied by radical conservatives in the US Congress during the volatile antebellum years of 1836:

“This episodehad as its hero none other than the venerable John Quincy Adams. Antislavery petitionshad begun pouring into the House of Representatives in such numbers, threatening the disruption of all normal business, that a House resolution of 1836 ordered that all such petitions be laid on the table without debate.

“Adams, a member of the House since his presidency, fought this so-called gag rule with such caustic ferocity, making impromptu speeches on every possible occasion, that he was the despair of all members who wished, for whatever reason, to keep antislavery itself from becoming a disruptive issue on the floor of the House. An attempt to censure him in 1842 miscarried and resulted in a triumph for the old man, who conducted his own defense

“His chief ally, Joshua Giddings of Ohio, was, in fact, successfully censured during the same session, but when Giddings resigned and was promptly re-elected by his constituencythe antipetition forces retired in chagrin. The gag rule was eventually repealed in 1844. The significant fact, however, was that throughout this period showers of antislavery petitions were flying through communities all over the North. They were circulated by thousands of volunteer workers, including substantial numbers of women who had for the first time found a satisfying mode of civic activityTo all these newly recruited citizens, inspired by the spectacle of an ex-president defending a question of manifest right, theirs seemed an enterprise sanctioned by the soundest of constitutional principles.”

Mr. Frist should read the warning at the end of the aforementioned article: “some Senate Republicans have voiced reservations. They warn such a move would further strain relations and come back to hurt them in a future Democratic-led Senate.”

Pushing people too far and changing the rules to one’s advantage usually backfires, re-energizing the minority group and igniting a smoldering resistance movement. This may just happen for moderates and progressives in the Senate-and all over America-if Frist succeeds in stifling the filibuster. The dominant party has much to lose in the end, even if it gets its way in the short term. Elkins sums up the unexpected boomerang effect that resulted from the antipetition campaign and John Quincy Adam’s spirited opposition to it:

“John Minor Botts of Virginia asserted that the battle [led by John Quincy Adams] “made more abolitionists in one year, by identifying the right of petition with the question of slavery, than the abolitionists would have made for themselves in twenty-five years.”

Dr. TERESA WHITEHURST is a clinical psychologist and writer. Her most recent book describes the nonviolent guidance of children, Jesus on Parenting, Baker Books, 9/2004.

You can contact her at DrTeresa@JesusontheFamily.org


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