More Wrong Signals

Much as we admire the frequent extracurricular acts of medical heroism of our state's senior senator, Bill Frist, we can't help but be concerned about how the Senate Majority Leader is now helping shape a new -- and more authoritarian -- role for the Bush administration in our nation's government.

Specifically, Frist has announced his intention to seek revocation of the Senate's time-honored filibuster rule, which requires that 60 senators vote to suspend the rules and impose cloture on debate of a given issue. Though it has occasionally been used to retard progress, as in the early years of the civil rights issue, the filibuster has often served to prevent -- or at least postpone -- rash and potentially destructive actions by the majority. One instance, remembered only by historians and old-timers, was an effort during the Eisenhower administration to truncate the Tennessee Valley Authority's role as a supplier of cheap and reliable power. A bipartisan filibuster managed to thwart that scheme, to the satisfaction of Tennesseans in both parties.

Even more ominously, Frist evidently plans to circumvent what remains of the Senate's seniority system and impose something of a political litmus test on committee assignments. Rules changes he has pursued allow him to pick the first two vacancies on all committees, and, while that could lead to the elimination of some deadwood here and there, it also -- and more likely -- could result in a more slavish obedience to administration dictates on the part of a body which has been charged with the constitutional duty of being both deliberative and deliberate.

The Senate changes must be seen in tandem with the actions of the House of Representatives, where Speaker Dennis Hastert has announced that no matter will see floor action unless it is the will of a majority of GOP members, and where Republicans recently decided -- significantly, by voice vote -- to do away with a rule precluding party leadership positions for members who are indicted for felonies. That last rule change, ensuring the continuation in office of House Majority Leader Tom "The Hammer" Delay of Texas, was decried, as we observed last week, by a Republican member from Tennessee, Chattanooga's Zach Wamp, who said it sent "all the wrong signals."

So do the Senate changes resolved upon by Frist.


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