In an email to supporters tonight, DNC chair Howard Dean echoed Robert Byrd's tactic (debunked here) of portraying the "nuclear option," which would prevent filibusters on judicial appointees, as a matter of free speech:
Today Harry Reid and the Democratic Senators asked us, the American people, to help them preserve the right of our elected representatives to speak their mind on the floor of the U.S. Senate.
We have to act. Sign this petition, which we will deliver to every U.S. Senator, asking them to protect the right to free speech in the Senate. If they don't, it is not only their voice that will be silenced -- it will be ours.
Dean also asks party members to "Please tell your Senator to stand up for free speech" and urges them to "act together in order to protect our democracy," providing a link to this petition, which also uses free speech language:
Democrats in the Senate, lead by Democratic leader Harry Reid, are committed to preserving the right of our elected representatives to speak their mind on the floor of the U.S Senate.
Let's be clear -- there's a lot at stake in this debate. But "free speech" is just code to make it look like the Constitution is being threatened. It is not. And the Dean email and Democratic petition fail to explain the issue so that supporters can make up their own minds.
To review, the filibuster is a parliamentary rule that does not appear in the Constitution. In its current form, it allows 2/5 of senators to prevent debate on a bill from being terminated, which effectively blocks it from being brought to a vote (see the Wikipedia definition and my November '04 primer). The "nuclear option" under consideration by Republicans would prevent Democrats from filibustering the nominations of judicial appointees, thereby reducing the threshold of votes necessary to put them on the bench from 60 to 50.
In short, this is a debate about the power of the minority in the Senate, not "speech." As I said before, legislators do not have a right to unlimited parliamentary debate -- if they did, nothing would ever get done. Moreover, senators have ample opportunity to vent their fascinating opinions for hours on C-SPAN, and do so at great length. The "nuclear option" would not change that. And the reality is that a successful filibuster usually ends debate on an issue rather than prolonging it. In short, this is nonsense.
There is a more serious debate that we should have as a country about the power of the minority under the filibuster. Do we want 40 senators to be able to block debate on an issue? I don't know the answer to this question, which raises questions about representation (the Senate overrepresents small states), the proper amount of minority power (if any), and government responsiveness to public opinion. (Reading assignment: Keith Khrebiel's Pivotal Politics.) I do know one thing, though - Howard Dean is full of shit.
Two other ridiculous Dean talking points:
1) "Americans did not endorse the fringe agenda to dismantle Social Security. And they did not endorse dismantling the system of checks and balances that have served our country for over 200 years."
Checks and balances is a reference to the separation of powers, an element of Constitutional design. By invoking the phrase, Dean suggests that Republicans are tampering with the Constitution. But they are not. The filibuster is an internal legislative branch issue. (It is true, however, that the super-majority requirement of the Senate presents a major hurdle to passage of any bill.)
2) "More Americans voted against George Bush than any sitting president in history."
First, Americans voted for Bush than any presidential candidate in history, so this is a pretty stupid talking point. The size of the vote against him was a function of higher turnout and population growth. Moreover, as Brian Carnell points out, the total vote for George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot in 1992 was even larger than Kerry's total.