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Collateral Damage

Wars inevitably produce collateral damage, and we’re seeing it happen with the sulfurous combat being waged by Democrats and Republicans in the Senate. In this case, it’s not civilians who are suffering, but political traditions like majority rule on judicial nominations, sparing use of recess appointments and cooperation in passing legislation.

What’s going on in the Senate right now — almost nothing but political posturing, finger-pointing and institutional damage — is part of the larger death struggle under way between the two parties for marginal advantage in a 50-50 country. To defend themselves, the Clinton and Bush administrations have resorted to claims of executive privilege and have lost out in many cases — inflicting collateral damage on the presidency.

Clinton sought to claim secrecy rights for Secret Service agents to keep them from testifying in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. He lost in court. President Bush, running one of the most secretive presidencies ever, originally tried to deny testimony by his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, before the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Bush lost that battle in the court of politics. We don’t think the damage to executive privilege in this case is grave — White House staffers can’t be compelled to testify before Congressional committees under this precedent — yet a chip has been taken out of presidential prerogatives.

Democrats have decided that because Bush did not win a majority of the popular vote in 2000, he is not entitled to have his judicial appointments approved by majority vote. Now, whenever Democrats deem an appointee to be “extreme,” they block the appointment with a filibuster, requiring the nominee to get 60 votes. In response, Bush has given recess appointments to judges previously disapproved by the Senate. In response, Democrats are blocking virtually all executive and judicial nominations. And, the White House is refusing to nominate Democrats to executive and independent boards and commissions. This is how feuds escalate into wars.

Another example of collateral damage is the Senate Democrats’ refusal to agree to make appointments to House-Senate conference committees in retaliation for the GOP practice of not consulting Democratic conferees when they are named. The consequence is that when legislation actually does get passed by both chambers, it can’t be fashioned into laws and signed by the president. Meantime, Democrats also are routinely filibustering legislation or blocking passage by endlessly proposing amendments.

Both sides believe they are impressing voters for the elections. Democrats think they will gain advantage by branding the GOP Congress a “do nothing.” Republicans think they will win by accusing Democrats of “obstructionism.” We don’t know who’s right, but we know this: Democrats are creating terrible precedents that Republicans will follow when Democrats regain control, which will happen someday. And the Bush administration is creating precedents the GOP will rue when a Democrat inhabits the White House.

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