## Saturday, April 30, 2005

### Filibustering

The filibuster, i.e. an extra-constitutional obstructionist tactic - speaking about irrelevant things for hours in the Senate, trying to delay a decision, has been used by both parties throughout the U.S. history. In the 1950s and the 1960s, it was used to prevent new bills about the civil rights.

Recently, at least 10 conservative judicial nominees have been filibustered by the Democrats in the Senate - an unprecendented large number. Princeton's alumnus, the Senate majority leader William Frist, proposed the "nuclear option" based on the paradigm that it should be enough to debate a candidate for 100 hours - and a vote should follow afterwards. Today it takes 60 votes to stop a meaningless debate; according to Frist's new rules, it would take simply 51 votes in the case of judicial nominees.

Most Democrats and other left-wing forces - which also includes 95 percent of intellectually diverse Princeton University - vehemently disagree. Everyone should be allowed to speak for hundreds of hours and maybe for years. It is vital for democracy to obstruct and delay nominees that the correct people do not like - much like it is important for bureaucrats to slow everything down as much as possible (these slowing procedures are usually extremely efficient and in many cases more annoying than a "no" vote). For example, it is important to read random pages from Introduction to Elementary Particles by David Griffiths for more than 50 hours.

Edward Witten and Chiara Nappi are not the only ones - Frank Wilczek is having a great filibustering time in Princeton, too. ;-) See also the filibuster webcam and program in Princeton. I was explained that the last sentence was "unnecessary".

1. Dear Lumo, I think it's disgraceful that your freedom of speech has been curtailed in some way. *But* I don't agree with the way you are reacting to this situation. By being so mysterious you are not letting your readers judge for themselves what has happened. The best procedure would be a simple statement of the facts, without any judgement as to whether what has happened to you is fair or not. Let the readers judge for themselves. If you have been instructed that you can't even do *that*, this would be even more shocking, and you should tell us that.
Meanwhile, keep up the good work of telling us what is happening physicswise at Harvard!

2. Dear Luboš -- I agree with Fyodor that you should be free to say what you want! Me too, so I'll just add that "conservative nominees" are not being blocked. 95% of Bush's judicial nominees have been approved without filibuster. The issue is whether Bush should be free to nominate activist judges so offensive to the minority party that Democrats resort to this very unwieldy tactic. I'm uneasy with losing a national tradition that helps promote compromise and restrains the arrogance of power. Or, to quote Frank, "In physics, we learn that having definite rules is important." All best, Betsy

3. Dear Betsy,

thank you very much for your message. It's not quite certain whether I can write the following, but let me try:

The Senate in particular is, indeed, a place where decisions should *not* be made by the committees of the political parties - which effectively means the party that has a majority - but by intelligent individuals that respect the rights of the minority, and so forth.

And yes, these methods have been kind of neutral in their effect throughout the history.

But sometimes it may just happen that a new "hole" in the previous rules is invented, and it must be fixed. This the process by which the constitution and other good laws have been found in the first place.

There is a risk that the filibuster - as a new, popular idea - could be used to veto virtually everything. And I don't mean just the proposals of the GOP - it's almost guaranteed that if the GOP loses majority, it will revenge by similar tools. If these things became frequent, the system would be broken, I think.

The Senate may have a different logic behind its composition, but it's still true that morally, the everyday decisions should be made by 50 or 51 senators, not by 60 senators. If the limit were 60, it should be written in this way.

If a judge is "so offensive" to a party, then one should still note that this fact is a relation between *two* subjects, not just one. Maybe, it says more about the party than about the judge. I personally don't believe that a judge can be "so offensive" and yet be accepted by the GOP senators. The GOP club is a pretty diverse group - would you agree that not everyone is a right-wing Christian fundamentalist?

And although I am not a Christian in a non-trivial, spiritual way, it just does not sound right to me that a whole (and pretty important, although a minority) group of people (Christians) should be denied the right to become a judge, especially if they have kind of won all the recent U.S. elections, if one exaggerates a little bit.

I think that you know very well that this is not about the right of the minority party to express their opinion and contribute their votes to a decision; it is about its right for universal power, its right to veto anyone - or, alternatively, it is about the rights (e.g. the right to become a judge) of the people who do not enjoy the support of a certain political party.

I am sure that this comparison won't be popular - but in the history, there have been many other political parties that found certain groups of citizens so offensive that they wanted to deny them such (and other) rights. You probably know how I am thinking about in the context of the 1930s, for example.

I am not saying that the situation is *completely* analogous, but it is definitely analogous in this respect, and in my opinion a political party - and it does not matter whether it's the Democrats, NSDAP, GOP, or a Communisty Party - simply should not have the right to veto a legitimate candidate that has the support of the majority. And the filibuster effectively gives them this power.

All the best
Lubos

4. Lubos,