Editor’s note: John P. Avlon is a senior political columnist for The Daily Beast and author of the new book "Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America." Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.
By John Avlon, Special to CNN
This week, Washington combined high stakes poker and parliamentary procedures with health care reform in the balance. And despite more than a year of heated debate, the American people remain deeply divided on the issue – the only thing they seem to agree on is that D.C. is dysfunctional. A new poll shows Congress with a 17% approval rating.
Part of the reason is an epidemic of situational ethics: politicians reversing supposedly principled stands depending upon whether or not their party is in power.
The most egregious example is support for reconciliation – a measure to ensure an up-or-down vote, bypassing the threat of a filibuster. Republicans have lately been conflating reconciliation with the closely related, controversial (and conveniently scary-sounding) “nuclear option.”
When Larry King asked Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, “what’s wrong with majority rules?” on LKL earlier this week, she replied: “Because that's not how the Senate works. The Senate works with 60 votes. And now, what the president is promoting is a nuclear option, which is 50 votes.”
But the so called “nuclear option” was invoked 5 years ago by Republicans when they accused Democrats of blocking President Bush’s judicial nominations via filibuster.
As then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist explained, “Every judicial nominee brought to the floor should get a fair up or down vote...We were prepared to use this approach. The minority attempted to demean it by calling it the nuclear option surrounding it with the threats of the closure of government stopping this body from working…The proper term for our response is the constitutional option because we would rely on the constitution's power of self-governance to restore senate traditions barring judicial filibusters.”
In other words, Republicans were for forcing up-or-down votes before they were against it. As is so often the case in politics, where you stand is a matter of where you sit.
Democrats have their own flip-flop on the issue – they were against it before they were for it. Here’s New York’s senior Senator Charles Schumer, a master parliamentarian making the case against the nuclear option in 2005.
“We are on the precipice of a crisis, a constitutional crisis. The checks and balances which have been at the core of this republic are about to be evaporated by the nuclear option. The checks and balances which say that if you get 51% of the vote you don’t get your way a 100% of the time. It is amazing, it’s almost a temper tantrum.”
And here’s Senator Schumer this month: “Certainly the bill has to pass both houses, and that's not an easy job, even if we had to go to reconciliation, which is 50. And as I said, that's certainly not off the table.”
Another obscure parliamentary move became part of the political lexicon this week – “deem and pass.” It’s also called the self-executing option – and as Time Magazine’s Karen Tumulty wrote in a hypocrisy-watch blog post, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer once condemned Republicans use of the maneuver he’s defending now, saying in 2003, “What kind of demeaning of democracy is the objective of efficiency resulting in?...We do expect that the opportunity to debate legislation be the norm, not the exception.”
Now conservatives are arguing that the “deem and pass” might be unconstitutional – but Nancy Pelosi (alongside Congresswoman Louise Slaughter and Congressman Henry Waxman) already tried to make that argument in 2005, signing on to an amicus brief in the case Public Citizen vs. U.S. District Court, which contested Republicans ability to use self-executing rules to raise the debt ceiling.
They argued, as conservatives do now, that it was in violation of the Constitution’s procedure for passing legislation. They lost. The D.C. Circuit Court upheld the GOP’s self-executing actions.
Irony knows no party divides and the mess that Congress finds itself in can be traced to a basic lack of fairness and foresight. When parties are in power, they often try to muscle through maneuvers they would be outraged by if they were in the minority. And here’s the thing: one day soon they will be – no party remains in power forever in a democracy.
Teddy Roosevelt once said that “decency is the most practical form of politics.” But that wisdom has been lost in a political war of attrition and situational ethics.
In 2005, the so-called “nuclear option” was defused by a centrist “Gang of 14” senators who brokered a deal across party lines. But Congress is even more deeply divided today and the center has too few defenders, as the extremes incite further escalation.
Partisanship is trumping principle and eclipsing patriotism.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.