The Peter Principles: Leave or lead

By PETER ROFF, United Press International  |  May 23, 2003 at 1:43 PM
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WASHINGTON, May 22 (UPI) -- For 40 years after World War II ended, the U.S. political system was remarkably stable. The Democrats were the majority. The Republicans were the minority.

On those rare occasions when their status appeared threatened, as in 1969 and 1981, the Republicans blundered, giving the Democrats a new lease on life.

The realignment many believed someday possible occurred in 1994. Neither party was prepared for the change. Both had difficulty adjusting.

Over time, the Republicans made the adjustment. The Democrats have not, as is clearly evident in the current climate. The ongoing Senate filibuster being waged against some of President George W. Bush's judicial nominees and the recent battle over redistricting in Texas are but two examples.

During the Clinton presidency, Senate Democrats, frustrated over the successful effort to block an economic stimulus package, proposed the abolition of the filibuster.

"The Constitution is straightforward about the few instances in which more than a majority of the Congress must vote," Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said on Jan. 30, 1995. "A veto override, a treaty, and a finding of guilt in an impeachment proceeding. Every other action by the Congress is taken by majority vote," he said.

Time certainly changes things. The top Senate Democrat is now spearheading the filibuster of the judicial nominees. He has, in the years following his original statement, amended his list to include those things he believes are, to use his word, "controversial."

The president nominated Miguel Estrada to a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. If confirmed, he would be the first Latino on what some call the nation's second-highest court.

The objection liberals like Daschle and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., voice to the Estrada nomination is that they know too little about his judicial philosophy to allow him to take his seat.

What this fight is really about is the president's ability to shape the make-up of the federal courts. The liberals, many of whom continue to deride Bush as a selected rather than elected president, believe he must be prevented -- by whatever means available -- from reshaping the judiciary through the appointment process.

Estrada's confirmation has been blocked, though a majority of senators would vote to confirm, by a liberal minority who realize the only way they can win is through obstruction.

In the end this is not about just one nomination.

Should Associate Justice John Paul Stevens, the court's oldest and most liberal member, leave, the door would be opened to a fundamental shift in the way the U.S. Constitution is applied and interpreted.

Without Stevens, the 5-4 split on important issues that now hews to the left could go the other way. If Bush were to nominate Estrada or Texas Supreme Court Judge Priscilla Owen, who is also being filibustered, as Stevens' replacement, the political costs to stop the nomination would dramatically increase over what they would be if the nominee were a white male.

Schumer has proposed a change in the way federal judicial nominees are picked, bringing the public into the process and making the Senate and the president nearly co-equal partners in the selection. Such a move is unconstitutional, as the Constitution vests the authority to choose in the president and the president alone. At the same time, Democratic colleagues have repeatedly marshaled 41 votes -- the same number needed to sustain a filibuster -- against the Bush nominees who have been confirmed.

Another example of this massive resistance to GOP majority rule comes from Texas. Last week, statehouse Democrats fled to Ardmore, Okla., preventing a quorum and stopping a bill to redraw the congressional district -- along with close to 400 other pieces of legislation -- from moving forward.

These legislators abandoned their posts and threw the interests of their constituents to the wind to avoid partisan defeat. The proposed plan would change the partisan make-up of the Texas congressional delegation and was, by the numbers, clearly defensible.

As Fred Barnes writes in the May 26 issue of The Weekly Standard news magazine, the Republicans defied the expectations of Democrats in 2002, winning all the statewide elections and, for the first time in 130 years, control of the state legislature -- and by a sizeable margin in both chambers.

The GOP candidates won 57 percent of the combined vote in the 2002 congressional races but, thanks to a court-drawn plan, won 15 of 32 congressional seats.

The Republicans want to replace the court map with one passed through the legislature, as the law provides. A fair map would give the GOP a majority of the seats but, because the Republicans now control the process, the Democrats expected a gerrymandered rout.

In Texas, this is the way the game is played. In 1990, when the Democrats controlled the process, the map produced what the "Almanac of American Politics'" Michael Barone called "the shrewdest gerrymander of the 1990s."

Under that map the Democrats won 70 percent of the seats in 1992 while winning just half of the total votes cast for Congress. As Barone writes, that map was produced by an aide to U.S. Rep. Martin Frost, D-Texas, who was one of those cheering the Texas Democrats on during their self-imposed exile.

With very real outrage but a contrived claim to the high moral ground, the Democrats bolted the chamber. They fled rather than fight, even though the battle was surely lost.

This was not what their constituents elected them to do.

This attempt to lead by political temper tantrum does not auger well for the future of the democracy. It is, in effect, a shift from rule by the majority to the tyranny of the minority, an idea the founders not only rejected but tried to guard against.

"The founders debated the idea of requiring more than a majority," one observer has said. "They concluded that putting such immense power into the hands of a minority ran squarely against the democratic principle. Democracy means majority rule, not minority gridlock." Oh yeah -- the man who said it: U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle, on Jan. 30, 1995.

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(The Peter Principles is a regular column on politics, culture and the media by Peter Roff, UPI political analyst and 20-year veteran of the Washington scene.)

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