If GOP takes back Senate, will parties flip views on filibuster, again?

A decade ago, Republicans were in the majority and Democrats in the minority, and their positions on the filibuster were the opposite of what they are today. 

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada (l.) talks with Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky on Capitol Hill on Sept. 10, 2014, as Congress honored victims of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. The two leaders could exchange titles, if Republicans take back the majority in midterm elections.

Longtime Washington official Rufus Miles coined a memorable maxim: “Where you stand depends on where you sit.” In other words, your opinions tend to change as you move up and down the hierarchy, or as you take on new tasks. 

Remember Miles’s Law if Republicans take control of the Senate in the upcoming midterm election. As the minority party in recent years, Republicans have often used the filibuster to block action on the Senate floor. The majority Democrats responded by ending the filibuster for most nominations by presidents, and some have talked about eliminating it for bills. Republicans say that the filibuster is a vital procedural safeguard, while Democrats say it has become a weapon of mindless obstructionism.

A decade ago, Republicans were in the majority and Democrats in the minority. And in keeping with Miles’s Law, their positions on the filibuster were the opposite of what they are today. 

On May 18, 2005, Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said: “The filibuster is far from a `procedural gimmick.’ It is part of the fabric of this institution. ... [T]he filibuster is a critical tool in keeping the majority in check. This central fact has been acknowledged and even praised by senators from both parties….It’s within the vision of the Founding Fathers of our country. They established a government so that no one person – and no single party – could have total control.”

Five days later, Republican whip Mitch McConnell of Kentucky called for limiting the filibuster on judicial nominations. He complained that the minority Democrat were obstructing President George W. Bush’s choices for the federal bench : “This is about using the filibuster to kill nominations with which the minority disagrees so 41 senators can dictate to the president whom he can nominate to the courts of appeal and to the Supreme Court.”

So, assume that Republicans win the Senate this year. And assume further that the 2016 elections keep them in power and bring a Republican to the White House. Will the Senate parties maintain their current positions on the filibuster – or will they revert back to their 2005 positions? 

You know what Rufus Miles would say.  And he would probably be right.

The operation of his law extends to just about every other institution in Washington. During their confirmation hearings, Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor both endorsed the idea of having cameras in the Supreme Court. Both have reversed themselves. Maybe they have seen what partisan advocates and political satirists have been able to do with audio of oral arguments, and they do not want to watch themselves on “The Daily Show.”

Examples of Miles’s Law are especially abundant in the executive branch.

In a debate with Al Gore during the 2000 campaign, George W. Bush said: “We're a freedom-loving nation and if we're an arrogant nation, they'll view us that way, but if we're a humble nation, they'll respect us.” Gore responded: “I agree with that.”

Even President Bush’s most ardent supporters would acknowledge that his foreign policy was anything but “humble.”

Indeed, reacting to President Bush’s assertive use of military power, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois said in 2007:  “The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”  In 2014, he is claiming that very authority in the fight against the Islamic State.

But former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has recently published a book that criticizes his one-time boss for not being forceful enough, especially in the Middle East. President Obama, said Panetta, has “lost his way.”

Back in 2008, a former White House chief of staff said that the time to air to differences is when “policy is being implemented.” He said that tell-all memoirs undercut the presidency because officials wonder whether colleagues “are going to write their own books about who was trying to go after who, and who screwed up. It just creates an atmosphere that I think undermines the work that staff to the president have to do.”

The former chief of staff was Leon Panetta.

Jack Pitney writes his Looking for Trouble blog exclusively for the Monitor.

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