The hatchetmen win: Harry Reid’s muscle move
By John Podhoretz
November 22, 2013 | 2:11am
The extremely peculiar rules governing the United States Senate just got a little less peculiar. After a historic vote yesterday, it will now take 51 votes — a simple majority — for most presidential nominations to be approved by the 100-member Senate.
One senator responded with outrage to the idea. The American people, he roared, “don’t expect . . . for one party — be it Republican or Democrat — to change the rules in the middle of the game.”
His name is Barack Obama.
Sen. Obama spoke those words in 2005 about a Republican proposal to do something very much like what happened yesterday — a proposal thwarted by a bipartisan deal struck by a so-called “gang of 14” that left the old order in place.
Yesterday, of course, President Obama told the world he was just thrilled by what the Senate had done, because now it’s different. Now it’s worse. Now he’s one of the most shameful hypocrites American politics has ever seen.
OK, he didn’t say that last one.
But while he may have secured a useful political tool for himself, Obama’s shocking disingenuousness on this matter will be profoundly unhelpful to him right now, at a moment of true crisis for him as a leader.
Ordinarily, a change in Senate procedure would be too arcane for a public issue to be made of it. But given the way the public has been shaken by the exposure of just how deceitful Obama was in selling his health-care package, his brazenly self-interested flip-flop really could resonate — and degrade his tattered reputation still further.
So what exactly happened in the Senate, and why does it matter?
I’d explain why it took 60 votes for a nominee to get through the Senate until yesterday’s vote, but you’d fall asleep in the middle of the explanation. The very fact that I would be required to use the incomprehensible term “cloture” in my explanation shows how deliberate the effort has been to make Senate procedure all but incomprehensible to ordinary people.
That is by design. The Senate is the least “democratic” of American institutions. For 124 years following the passage of the US Constitution, senators weren’t even directly elected (for the most part). They were chosen by state legislators. And their purpose was not to represent the interests of voters but of states.
Indeed, the Senate’s very structure is a complete violation of the one-person, one-vote principle that is the fundament of democracy, since a state with 600,000 residents (Wyoming) has as many senators as one with 33 million residents (California).
This fact is one of the primary reasons the United States is not a “democracy” in the literal sense but rather a “republic.”
The anti-democratic nature of the Senate’s DNA has carried over into the rules governing its process over the past century. They’ve always been designed to strengthen the power of individual senators (and the states they represent) at the expense of the national political parties to which they belong.
For example, in recent decades a solitary senator could place a “hold” on a given executive-branch nominee and effectively block his advance — a device often used as a negotiating tactic for that senator to get something he wanted out of the administration.
Thus, what happened yesterday was something new in politics: Democratic senators actually voted to weaken their own authority and strengthen the power of the Democratic Party at their own expense.
Why? So they could muscle through several judicial nominations that had been blocked by their party’s inability to convince six Republicans to go along with them.
More generally, they did so — at the direction of their ultra-partisan party boss, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — to give Obama a desperately needed political victory over Republicans in the midst of the ObamaCare debacle.
Moreover, they might have been willing to do it because of the potential political catastrophe represented by ObamaCare. Suddenly, it appears Republicans might be able to take control of the Senate in November 2014 because of Obama’s colossal policy bungle.
As a result, the president and his party might only have a year to get judges and other appointees installed before a Republican Senate stymies them (as Harry Reid did to President George W. Bush in 2007 and 2008).
Clearly, the old Senate rules are pretty much indefensible — except for the defense provided by tradition. And that defense is powerful.
These rules have been in place a very long time. They’ve gummed up the works for presidents of both parties. They’ve given individual senators power to negotiate solutions and side deals with their fellows without the meddling of their partisan bosses.
Now, Washington’s partisan hatchet men — particularly Reid, who not only lives to swing a hatchet but has all the charm and personality of one — will be vastly more powerful.
Barack Obama’s legacy grows ever more disturbing.