Editorial: Hooray for Alexander's forthrightness

Posted on October 2, 2015

Over the past week, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander has demonstrated his willingness to fight the good fight for common sense: Once in coming out against a government shutdown over funding for Planned Parenthood and then in reminding fellow Republicans that eliminating the filibuster in the Senate could work against them in the future.

"The United States Congress is in the business of dealing with contentious issues," said Alexander, a Maryville Republican. "If we shut down the government every time a contentious issue came up, the government would never be open."

A shutdown of the federal government was a possibility because of a fight over funding of Planned Parenthood after the release of secretly taped videos that raised questions about the organization's handling of fetal tissue provided to scientific researchers.

Alexander, Tennessee's senior senator, said shutting down the government to protest funding of Planned Parenthood is "the wrong thing to do." Members of Congress were elected to make the government work for the people who elected them, he said.

"Specifically," Alexander said, "shutting down the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in October at a time of peak visitation and revenue for surrounding communities is not my idea of making the government work for the benefit of taxpayers."

On the issue of the filibuster as a legislative weapon, Alexander was even more forceful with members of his party, speaking from the Senate floor for nine minutes. The Republicans who are seeking to remove the filibuster in the Senate have short memories, he said. It protects the minority party in the Senate from being railroaded by legislation from the majority party.

Under current rules, the minority party can use the filibuster to stall a bill by forcing nonstop debate on the measure, effectively keeping it from passing. The majority party can overcome the filibuster if it can produce 60 or more votes for the measure. That threshold is difficult to meet.

The request to abolish the filibuster came from 59 House Republicans, and Alexander said he can understand their frustration with measures proposed by the administration of President Barack Obama. However, if the GOP can change the filibuster rules when it is in the majority, then Democrats can do the same when they are in the majority again.

Ever the student of history, Alexander noted that Democrats have been in control of the presidency and Congress for 22 of the 70 years since World War II; Republicans have had that level of control only for six years.

It was not that long ago – before the 2014 congressional elections – that Republicans were actually in the minority. Yet, they had enough votes employing the filibuster to block Democrats on party-line votes. Moreover, the filibuster encourages consensus, Alexander said, and consensus is the way to govern a complex nation such as the U.S.

He is right, of course, and deserves support for his forthrightness on this issue. Such a serious question must be discussed thoroughly. What has benefited both parties doesn't deserve to be killed by shooting from the hip.