Language is a critically important factor in political debate. There are numerous examples, on both ends of the political spectrum, of attempts to control the tone of the debate by controlling the terminology. Sometimes it is a matter of controlling the terms used, and sometimes it is a matter of controlling the meanings associated with those terms. The phrases "Pro-Life" and "Pro-Choice" are the flip sides of the classic case of controlling of the terms. I'm on the lookout for that sort of thing in the upcoming confirmation of a replacement for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. This willl surely be the top US political story of the summer, if not the year, unless Chief Justice Rehnqust retires, in which case it will be half of the top story. I believe that control of the meanings of terms is already central to all the preliminaries to this that are going on in Washinton and in the media.
In the next days or weeks, I'm going to post occasional articles about how manipulations of the meanings of a few terms are shaping the debate on judicial nominations. The constitutional phrase "advice and consent" is an obvious one, but possibly the least important of the terms that the politicians and pundits will try to control. I'll come back to the subject of that phrase in a little bit.
A new phrase, "extraordinary circumstances", due to tthe Gang of 14, will also be a big battleground. I don't think I'll be able to contribute much original thought to discussion of the meaning of this one, but I'll try to watch and report on it as the meaning develops over the next month or two. Phrases like "judicial philosophy", "judicial activism", and "strict construction" are the ones I expect the most energy to go into controlling, and I do plan to write a little bit about each of them in future posts.
Back to "advice and consent". One of the ways that phrase is already being contolled is through the introduction of another phrase that we have been hearing for several months now: "up or down vote". There's no battle over the meaning of "up or down vote". It's a nice, user-friendly phrase that has been purposely inserted to control the tone of the debate. What's interesting about it is that it provides a snappy linguistic handle that distracts attention from "advice" and concentrates it on "consent" (or lack thereof).
Take a look at the image I've attached below, which is a scan of a letter I received from Senator John Sununu.
I had sent the Senator a fax urging him to reject the "nuclear option" of amending the Senate rules to allow votes on judicial nominations without requiring a 60/40 closure vote. The scan is the response I received. In it, he immediately followed the phrase "advice and consent" by shifting the subject to "an up or down vote". An even closer look at the Senator's wording shows an even more subtle linguistic trick. In the sentence below, which I've copied verbatim from the letter, I've highlit the one word that I want you to concentrate on first.
The US Constitution gives the Senate the responsibility of "advice and consent" for presidential nominations, and I believe that means a nominee should be given the opportunity for an up or down vote by the full Senate once they are approved by the committee of jurisdiction.
What's up with that one word? The Senator could have said "responsibilities", but he didn't. A grammarian would probably say that he should have used the plural form, because he's referring to a plural phrase "advice and consent". The Senator is a well-educated man, but he's a busy man, and it's even possible that he didn't actually write that sentence himself. Also, adherence to strict grammar certainly isn't all it's cracked up to be, and it's certainly not as popular as it once was. It may even be possible to claim that "advice and consent" is a collective phrase that calls for the singular form "responsibility"... so maybe I should give the Senator a pass on this one. It is possible, however, that this was a deliberate bit of the linguistic manipulation. It makes "advice and consent" into one responsibility, not two separate responsibilities. If there's just one responsibility, it makes sense that the up or down vote should be required, because the vote is the one responsibility, right?
And there's another linguistic manipulation in that sentence. The phrase "once they are approved by the committee of jurisdiction" is thrown in almost as an afterthought. It's a pretty technical phrase that doesn't exactly trip off the tongue easily, thrown in right after that nice friendly mention of "up or down vote". That's not likely an accident. It makes it pretty easy to ignore what is actually a tremendously loaded part of the debate. It makes it easy to ignore the fact that what the Senator is doing is claiming a right for the committee of jurisdiction that he wants to claim the full Senate doesn't have: the right to continue giving advice instead of moving on to considering consent. And from 1992-2000, during the Clinton administration, that's exactly what the committee of jurisdiction did, time and again. From 1995 to the end of Clinton's term of office, the Senate Judiciary Committee blocked 35% of his appellate court nominees without even an up or down vote in committee, not to mention an up or down vote in the full Senate.
There are other problems in this letter that I could get into, for example the weasly use of the phrase "unprecedented fashion". The word "fashion" slithers out of the lie that filibuster of judicial nominations is unprecedented, but it sure manages to leave the opposite impression. The one sentence I showed above, however, is really all I that wanted to zero in on in this post, and it's enough.
It's enough to show that Senator Sununu is being intellectually and historically dishonest, and attempting to control the terminology in the debate in order to cover it up. Don't get me wrong, though. This isn't about Senator Sununu. He's just the one who sent me a letter that I could scan. He's certainly not the only one using the phrase "an up or down vote" to manipulate the language of the debate, to over-simplify the issue and obscure the fact that the GOP is taking a partisan position when they seek to either bully the minority party into approving presidential nominations or change 200 years of Senate rules to guarantee that a simple majority is, for the first time ever, sufficient to approve lifetime appointments.
This sort of linguistic misdirection won't work with me, though, and I'll be watching for similar things as the Supreme Court nomination and confirmation process proceeds this summer and fall.