DO YOU WANT to know how old is old? It's old enough to remember when the big issue facing a new Senate in January was Rule 22 and how the about-to-be seated members would vote on it. Rule 22? That was the Senate's procedure for breaking filibusters. It used to be a test: if you were a real conservative, and certainly a Southern one, you were against making it easier to end the obstructive talking. If you were a liberal you were for changing the rule and possibly even for doing away altogether with the right to blab interminably. Hot contests were fought over this every second January. Good committee seats and other plums were handed out by the conservative old guard when they were running things based on a senator's sticking with them on Rule 22.
You probably think all this was going on sometime during the Punic Wars, but actually it was still a feature of political life in the 1960s. The underlying source of the argument was civil rights legislation: a number of senators far short of a majority could keep the Senate from acting on such legislation because Rule 22 said that two-thirds of the membership (now it's 60 senators) were required to stop the talking.
What interests us in reflecting on that bygone era is not just the obvious fact that in this day and age -- and especially right at the moment -- it is the liberals who are taking such advantage of the remaining right to filibuster. It is also a recollection of the intensity of that earlier argument. What was said then in opposition to the right to filibuster -- said, we might note, by ourselves among others -- was that more than even so important a matter as civil rights was involved. This -- preventing an issue from being voted on on the floor was an outrage against democracy and the people's right to decent, straightforward government.
That was then. A companion feeling, equally stoutly argued, was that it was also an outrage against democracy, etc., for committee and subcommittee chairmen and/or members to "bottle up" legislation that might be passed by the full body, to refuse to let it get to the floor. This, too, we regarded as an evil and regularly denounced. Just let the legislators vote, the argument ran; surely it is un-American to do otherwise.
We note with as much fascination as chagrin that the sides have pretty much reversed on this. In a Republican Senate it is the liberal side that is employing the filibuster to keep legislation it thinks a menace from ever coming to a vote. In a Democratic, but conservative-minded House, it has been a few liberal committee chairmen (what we didn't used to say about conservative House committee chairmen who bottled up bills) who have kept legislation they disliked and feared would be whooped through from seeing the light of day. True, this turnabout is not exactly new: liberals started throwing the odd filibuster (it then still did seem odd) back in the mid to late 1960s. But the unabashed use of this and related blocking techniques for the pursuit of liberal causes -- well, that is new. And, to be frank about it, if you are of a certain age, it either is or, anyway, ought to be, a little discomfiting.
Was all that impassioned argument against the procedure itself, that talk of anti-democratic obstructionism, hot air? Was it wrong? We really aren't prepared to say so. You can point out that the various blocking, obstructing procedures have been somewhat altered and made less susceptible to oligarchical abuse since those days -- but that really doesn't answer the question either. There is something troubling about the techniques on which 1982's liberal combatants in the House and Senate have felt themselves forced to rely and the unembarrassed ease with which they have done so.
Fundamentally these techniques are no more attractive than they were in the bygone era of Richard Russell and Howard Smith. We believe the causes in which they are nowadays invoked are much better causes than was that ancient effort to prevent enactment of civil rights law. But at a minimum we think the people involved in this Great Turnabout should tell folks why what was no good as procedure then is all right -- even holy -- now.