It seems that when Sen. Bob Dole speaks out about how business should be conducted in the U.S. Senate, the people now sitting in those Senate seats should listen up.
During an appearance in Lawrence Tuesday, Dole offered some insight on whether Republican leaders should change the Senate rules to keep Democrats from using filibusters to hold up Bush nominees to appellate courts. Dole clearly didn't favor that approach.
"They ought to be staying up all night long, every night, trying to figure out some way to do it without tinkering with the rules," he said.
Dole was delivering the annual lecture that carries his name in his namesake Dole Institute for Politics at Kansas University Tuesday. There is little doubt of the high regard Kansans have for their veteran senator, but Dole also has become a popular talk show guest and speaker. And before that, during 28 years in the U.S. Senate, he earned a reputation as a smart, honest lawmaker who knew how to move legislation and get things done.
You don't serve 12 years as your party's leader in the Senate without learning a thing or two about when to compromise. And, at least in Dole's case, a 36-year congressional career brought with it a healthy respect for the process that underpins America's democratic government.
Staging a filibuster to hold up Senate action on a bill or appointment may seem like a childish strategy, but it has served an important purpose by allowing opponents to have their say on significant issues. Filibusters have been used by both parties, often to register objections to judicial appointments. Now, it's the Republicans leading the charge to end unlimited debate on those appointments but the same effort was made by Democrats during the Clinton administration.
Although it can be a frustrating tactic, filibusters are consistent with the U.S. Constitution's goal to respect the rights of the minority and provide checks and balances among the three branches of government. Without the right to filibuster, the Senate's ability to check presidential appointments would be seriously curtailed and the balance of power would be slanted toward the executive branch.
Representative government isn't always convenient, but, as Dole knows, it's a dangerous thing to start tampering with basic legislative processes in order to deal with an isolated issue. It is important that judgeships be filled, but that needs to happen within the framework of constitutional intent. Even in contentious times like these, the president and the Senate must find judicial appointees that both find acceptable.
Dole's respect for America and its unique legislative process probably was behind his advice to senators to burn some midnight oil to find a way to address the stalemate on judicial appointments other than to change the rules. Yes, the nation needs to fill those judgeships, but changing the Senate rules to accomplish that goal should be looked to by Republicans as a last resort.
The collegiality that Dole witnessed and fostered as a Senate leader too often seems to be lacking among today's lawmakers. Dole pointed out Tuesday that as Senate majority leader, he always allowed a Senate floor vote on all issues, no matter how controversial. Hopefully, we soon will see a return to a more respectful working relationship among members of the U.S. Congress. In the meantime, perhaps current Senate leaders should listen to an old hand and -- even if it takes some additional effort -- try to find a less drastic way to move judicial appointments through the Senate.