Published on Saturday, January 28, 2006 by The Nation
Checks, Balances and the Duty to Filibuster
by John Nichols
No one runs for the U.S. Senate on the slogan: "Elect me and I will maintain the status quo."
No one runs for the U.S. Senate promising to go along to get along.
Yet, when push comes to shove, most senators end up as cautious players who choose the easy route of partisanship, ideological predictability and personal political advantage over the more dangerous path of adherence to the Constitution. Americans have grown so accustomed to the compromised nature of the chamber that they often forget that the founders of the American experiment intended the Senate, in particular, to serve as a check and a balance on the excesses of the executive branch.
Unfortunately, major media outlets that now serve as little more than a stenography service for the D.C. consensus regularly reinforce this misinterpretation of senatorial duty by painting members of the body who choose to embrace their Constitutionally-mandated responsibilities as, at best, eccentric or ambitious and, at worst, vindictive or dangerous to the healthy functioning of the body politic.
The move, led by Massachusetts Senators John Kerry and Edward Kennedy, to block the nomination of Judge Samuel Alito to the U.S. Supreme Court with a filibuster is already being dismissed by White House aides, Republican operatives and their echo chamber in the media as a mad misadventure that exposes the Democrats as legislative anarchists bent on wrecking the smooth-functioning processes of the Senate. The Republican National Committee's Tracey Schmitt summed up the sentiment when she peddled the official line of the man who would be monarch, arguing that in George W. Bush's America the Senate's advice and consent responsibilities are no longer required.
"The judicial confirmation process, particularly one for the nation's highest court, should be insulated from such thoughtless bomb throwing..." Schmitt growled.
Samuel Alito has established himself, through his record as an appellate court judge and his testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, as the consumate judicial activist. He seeks a place on the Supreme Court in order to advance his vision of an imperial presidency that does not obey the laws of the land or answer to the Congress. Alito is, by his own admission, intellectually and politically at odds with the intents of the founders, and with the Constitutional system of checks and balances that they established. He has gone so far as to advise past presidents on strategies for expanding executive power and, as a judge, he has erred on the side of even the most reckless abuses of executive authority.
As Jonathan Turley, the George Washington University law professor and Constitutional scholar, explained: "In my years as an academic and a litigator, I have rarely seen the equal of Alito's bias in favor of the government. To put it bluntly, when it comes to reviewing government abuse, Samuel Alito is an empty robe."
Turley put the Senate consideration of this nomination in context when he wrote that: "The Alito vote might prove to be the single most important decision on the future of our constitutional system for decades to come. While I generally defer to presidents in their choices for the court, Samuel Alito is the wrong nominee at the wrong time for this country."
Seen in the context of the threat that Alito poses, the use of the filibuster -- an entirely legitimate legislative tool -- to block Alito's nomination is not "bomb throwing." It is an appropriate and necessary embrace of duty by senators who recognize the entirety of their advice-and-consent mandate. Of course there will be political risks for those who back the filibuster. But senators do not swear allegiance to their political security; they swear it to a Constitution that requires them to hold the executive branch to account. In this moment, and in this circumstance, senators can only provide the necessary checks and balances by backing the filibuster.
John Nichols, The Nation's Washington correspondent, has covered progressive politics and activism in the United States and abroad for more than a decade. He is currently the editor of the editorial page of Madison, Wisconsin's Capital Times. Nichols is the author of two books: It's the Media, Stupid and Jews for Buchanan.
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