What Senate filibuster deal tells young democracies like Egypt's

The Senate filibuster deal avoids the severe political backlash of the 'nuclear option' – for now. It recognizes the filibuster's historic role in protecting minority interests, a lesson for newly democratic countries like Egypt.

AP Photo
Republican senators, from left, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., walk to a party caucus after a July 16 compromise between the Democratic majority and the GOP minority on filibuster rules. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid credited Sen. McCain, with helping broker a breakthrough.

Note to Egypt and other new democracies: Despite being one of the world’s oldest democratic republics, the United States still has trouble balancing the interests of the majority and the minority after an election.

Just look at Tuesday’s informal agreement in the US Senate about the legislative blocking action known as the filibuster. The compromise will avoid a drastic rule change on the filibuster by the Democratic majority, at least for now. Republican senators had been threatening to filibuster several of President Obama’s nominations for key cabinet and other positions. In response, majority leader Harry Reid had threatened to use the “nuclear option” – making a change to Senate filibuster rules by a simple majority vote that would lower the threshold required to approve executive nominations from 61 to 51 votes. In the end, the two sides hashed out an agreement that lets five of Mr. Obama’s nominees to federal agencies face an up-or-down vote (no filibuster), while pushing him to withdraw two other nominations.

Fortunately, no military was needed in the streets to push the Senate to compromise on a tactic long employed by minority parties to require a supermajority vote on many bills or appointments. Instead, it will help keep the current minority (Republicans) and any future minority (probably Democrats) from deciding there is little hope in participating in the current form of democracy. Egypt’s second revolution, on July 3, is a prime example of a large minority – by the millions in street protests – so fearing for its political voice that it invites a coup.

Both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate had good reasons to “cut the difference” in this agreement.

The role of the Senate itself as a deliberative body and as a check on power was at stake. Its collective power would be diluted without safeguards for minority interests. The senators also do not want their chamber to be like the House, where majority power is absolute and leaders of each side rarely talk to each other.

As Egyptians have lately discovered, democracy cannot be a winner-take-all contest defined only by election results, which the Muslim Brotherhood believed, as shown by grabs at power, lack of inclusiveness, and disregard for those outside its Islamist group. Nor can any group be excluded from politics, as the military now seems to believe, seen in its arrest of Brotherhood leaders.

“If representatives of some of the largest parties in Egypt are detained or excluded, how are dialogue and participation possible?” said US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns on a trip to Cairo this week.

With proper checks and balances, government can encourage citizens to listen to each other and care about each other’s interests. At a base level, this creates mutual back-scratching deals, such as the Senate filibuster deal. At a higher level, it helps people understand how to balance the competing claims of the majority with those of either individuals or minority groups.

At the highest level of democracy, citizens operate out of a shared respect for those principles that are applicable to all, such as a reverence for life and equality of opportunity.

The filibuster has been abused in the past couple of decades by both parties, especially the GOP, ending the romance of its use made famous by actor Jimmy Stewart in the 1939 film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” As a senator, now-Vice President Joe Biden said that “the Senate is not meant to be a place of pure majoritarianism.”

The filibuster is a focus now in part because of high voter frustration with Washington. Voting districts have been doctored to favor one or the other party forever. Campaign money pushes elected leaders to harden their views. Partisan think tanks treat political issues as intellectual warfare. Trust in government is near record lows.

A confrontation over the filibuster may erupt again. One way to settle the debate for good is to go through the process of seeing if the nation wants to amend the Constitution to make such a voting procedure a permanent fixture.

The Founding Fathers grappled with the limits of respecting minority interests. They agreed on having supermajorities to override a presidential veto, expel a member of Congress, approve treaties, convict in an impeachment, and propose a constitutional amendment. The Senate later added the filibuster.

Now today’s generations of Americans must reconsider the issue. Getting it right might even help the Egypts of the world as they, too, try to form a more perfect union.

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