Friday, March 25, 2005

Ghosts of Majorities Past

Last week, I dug up a bunch of quotes from the 103rd Congress (1993-94), when the minority Republicans were big proponents of the filibuster, and the majority Democrats were blustering about the gridlock of Republican obstructionism. I conjured this Dickensian "ghost of Congress past" not to point out the irony of politicians flip-flopping their rhetoric (amusing though it is), but as a cautionary tale for the Republicans, who are a majority today, but have been a minority in the past and inevitably will be again. (Sure, the current Republicans think they're ensconced in power for at least a generation. But the post-Watergate Democrats of the 1970's thought the same thing, until their titanic ambitions met the iceberg that was Ronald Reagan.)

Now, from the pages of the New York Times op-ed section comes another "ghost of majorities past", in the form of Iain Duncan Smith, a British MP and Conservative leader, who cautions his American peers about the filibuster:

As Republicans in the United States decide whether to do away with filibusters by changing Senate rules - the so-called nuclear option - they would do well to cast their eyes at their Conservative cousins across the Atlantic. Britain's backbench members of Parliament, whom I led as head of the Conservative Party from 2001 to 2003, are virtually powerless before a determined government majority.
Smith shares some historical perspective on how British Parliament came to introduce the "guillotine", a procedure to limit debate (i.e., to end filibusters). His historical perspective from our cousins across the pond should give both Democrats and Republicans something to think about. He warns Democrats against overuse of the filibuster (the British "guillotine" was introduced over 100 years ago in response to full-throttle minority obstruction), and he warns Republicans to bear in mind that they will be the minority again someday. As MP Smith knows all too well.

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