The Senate has gone nuclear. Metaphorically speaking, of course. Today, the Senate voted 52-48 to no longer allow filibusters to block the nominations of cabinet nominees and federal judges (though not Supreme Court Justices). A simple majority rules vote, this has been referred to as the ‘nuclear option’ because political rhetoric is a broken mess. But, using the option is very disruptive. As the New York Times put it, this vote represents “the most fundamental shift in the way the Senate functions in more than a generation.”
And it is one that was long overdue.
American democracy has been treading water since President Obama took office in 2009. Since then, the President has had a cooperative majority in the Senate, but an obstructionist minority. Using legal methods, the Republicans in the Senate have turned their minority into a quasi majority, filibustering every piece of significant legislation and many nominees to the point that majority rule has been subverted. In no other stable democracy in the world is anything less than a simple majority required to pass laws or confirm nominees. Only in the United States Senate has the threshold for conducting the business of the country been set so high.
This situation has gone on for so long because politicians fear change. They should. In many instances, the slow grind that is politics keeps extremism at arm’s length. But no longer. Extremism itself is the problem with the Senate, and filibuster reform is the slow, considered option.
Today’s vote did not eliminate the filibuster altogether, or even require that filibusters entail actually holding the floor of the Senate. Minority members are still free to hold up legislation with an email or a quick phone call. But they can no longer do so to nominees from the White House (once again, Supreme Court Justices omitted). The President can now, because of this vote, appoint people to run the government without delay or interference. Which is good, because that is the President’s job.
For too long, the government has been denied the personnel it needs to operate effectively. There are shortfalls in leadership throughout the Executive Branch, and these positions will now be filled. More importantly, judicial nominations are now freed up for true votes. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back, in fact. After Obama’s third nomination to the D.C. court of appeals was blocked, the most important court in the nation for cases involving the federal government, the Democrats had had enough, and changed the rules.
The Republican Party, to its own and the country’s detriment, has engaged in subversive tactics in Washington. At times, the GOP seems completely uninterested in actual governance, never more so than when they prevent government from working properly. In embracing the ideology that government is bad, their behavior these last few years has been to deny the government the means to perform effectively, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of government being the biggest problem with this country. That is nonsense. The government, despite its flaws, is the most effective means we have of responding to crises and bettering society.
One of the reasons Senators from both sides of the aisle have been reluctant to change filibuster rules is that no party keeps the majority forever. Democrats decry the use of the filibuster now, but they will surely change their tune when they are in the minority. That’s the thinking, sure, but today the Democrats showed that they recognize that fixing the damage done to democracy by overusing the filibuster was more important than preserving a weapon that they would like to be able to use themselves someday. For the long-term health of the country, it was important to reform the filibuster.