When I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the options available to Democrats in the wake of Scott Brown’s election, I noted the "nuclear option" as the most dangerous of the choices on the table. Declaring the filibuster unconstitutional would have far-reaching effects on the business of the Senate, and could make it difficult for a minority party to inject anything but claims of completely partisan legislation into the debate.
In an era in which "populist" is every candidate’s favorite adjective, the nuclear option would virtually guarantee a perpetual see-saw of Senate control. The majority party could pass any legislation they chose with only 51 votes, and the minority party could do nothing but cry "we couldn’t do anything to stop it".
But that argument is surprisingly effective and resonates well with a polarized electorate. And every two years, the minority party would campaign heavily on the "don’t let those bastards run the country, look at what they’ve done" message. And just enough seats would change hands to reverse the polarity of the Senate. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
That said, in the wake of one Alabama’s senator’s personal vendetta for hometown funding, it’s time to drop the bomb.
A recent history of the nuclear option: During President Clinton’s administration, the then-minority Republicans refused to allow votes on many judicial appointees by holding filibusters, and when the 1994 midterm elections swept the GOP into power in both houses of the legislature, the appointments were effectively killed.
The shoe switched feet when President Bush took office, and Democrats threatened to block any appointments they didn’t like (as it turns out, most Bush appointees were confirmed anyway). That’s when Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist threatened to invoke the nuclear option so that the President’s nominees could get a full vote on the floor.
A so-called "Gang of 14" moderate senators from both parties stepped in with a compromise preventing the use of the nuclear option, but the concept of ditching the filibuster has stuck around.
And now’s the time to revisit it. Senator Shelby of Alabama put a hold on every outstanding nomination that President Obama has made, and he did it out of spite that his pet projects in Alabama haven’t gone through. (Shortly after this column was written, Shelby dropped most of the holds.)
I generally hesitate to decry politicians’ attempts to get "pork" for their districts; after all, that is their job. But holding more than 70 federal nominees hostage is just begging for a proportional response.
As is also the case with actual nuclear weaponry, eliminating the filibuster carries with it a lot of fallout. As was also the case in 1945, however, the nuclear option could end a bloody and bitter war.
In the short term, doing away with the filibuster means the President’s nominees will all come to a vote, the healthcare bill can’t be killed by a minority of senators, and the lower threshold for passing legislation allows a small number of Democrats to defect and vote against some bills that would lose them their seat.
In the long term, though, the effects are split. Partisanship will increase, if that were even possible, and resentment between the parties could grow. But it also means that more bills will make it to the President’s desk. That’s one of the biggest problems with massive campaign promises; the President doesn’t have the ability to introduce legislation on his own, so he has to rely on friends in his party to do it for him.
And past that, if the President’s party doesn’t think the vote will be favorable on the Senate floor, they don’t even let it get that far. So if only 51 votes (instead of 60) are needed to get a bill to the President’s desk, much more of his agenda can actually come up for debate.
It’s an incredibly tough call — is that fast-track to the President’s desk worth the continued polarization of the political parties? As a Democrat, it might be — the more extreme the GOP gets (see also: Tea Party movement), the better the left-wing looks in comparison.
If nothing else, though, it merits discussion. Perhaps if the threat of a filibuster is enough to panic the Democrats, the threat of the nuclear option will muzzle the Republicans?