Carl Levin and Process…Again

For most of my life I was represented by Senator Carl Levin. I know of few politicians in the last few decades who’ve conducted themselves with such integrity, and on almost all substantive policy issues he’s been right, and often prescient. I was lucky to have him representing me in the Senate. But he can sometimes be obstinate on process matters, like now, when he’s joined with John McCain in trying to torpedo meaningful reform of the filibuster. Ezra Klein summed up their proposal well:

If you think the Senate is pretty much working well as is, and the biggest threat are the folks who want to change the rules, then this is the proposal for you. It lets people say they’re doing something to curb the abuse of the filibuster without actually doing anything at all. But if you think the Senate is broken, there’s nothing in here that would even plausibly fix any of its problems.

In 1999 Congress grappled with a different procedural matter: the impending expiration of the law authorizing the United States Office of Independent Counsel. The Independent Counsel had proven to be a mess:

Two broad dilemmas lie at the heart of the problems with the statute. On one hand is the question of what balance to strike between the independence and accountability of the appointed prosecutor. On the other is how to grant the attorney general the discretion to make fair and necessary appointment decisions while minimizing the potential for conflict of interest.

Currently, much criticism among members of Congress, former prosecutors, and legal experts centers on the idea that the statute is biased toward granting too much independence to the prosecutor and too little discretion to the attorney general.

Such criticism has grown with the four-year-old, $40 million Starr investigation [which began as an investigation of the Clintons’ Whitewater investment but eventually led to the Monica Lewinsky frenzy], but was also directed at earlier probes. Lawmakers “are so upset about Starr, and probably to a lesser extent about me,” says Lawrence Walsh, the independent counsel during the 1986 Iran-contra investigation.

Congress let the law expire. But there were a few who had tried to keep it alive:

Today, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., and a bipartisan group of colleagues are set to introduce legislation that would rework the statute they want renewed to maintain the independence of investigations into possible corruption by the highest government officials.

But that foursome — Lieberman will be joined by Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., Susan M. Collins, R-Maine, and Arlen Specter, R-Pa. — is in a distinct minority. Most members of Congress and even the administration seem content to let the post- Watergate reform fade into history.

It’s not clear to me why Carl Levin clings to procedural inertia long after the need for change is apparent. But he often does, so his opposition to filibuster reform is not a surprise.

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