When our children and grandchildren look back at history, they may remember November 21, 2013 as the day the United States Senate started working again. Probably not, because with any luck our children and grandchildren will be well-adjusted people with better things to do. But if they aren’t, then they will recall this day fondly, because today is the day America went nuclear.
The nuclear option is a very exciting name for a somewhat less exciting concept: the removal of the filibuster from the Senate rules of procedure, by simple majority vote. Senate Democrats voted today to disallow filibusters on nominees to the judiciary and the Cabinet. From now on, those nominees will be proposed, debated, and then voted on. If they get more than half the votes in the Senate, they get confirmed. If they don’t, they don’t.
If that sounds to you like the way things should always work, instead of a dramatic change worthy of the word “nuclear,” then you are obviously not a United States senator. This rule change has been discussed in hushed, slightly awed tones for almost a decade. Every now and then, the majority party would threaten to do it, and usually the minority would cave and let the majority’s nominees come to a vote. The most recent time this happened was earlier this year, and as usual it was resolved by a deal promising votes. Except Senate Republicans didn’t act in good faith. They filibustered three key Obama judicial nominees just a few months later. I wrote about it ad nauseum.
Up until today, Senate Republican obstruction was a bit like the weather: everybody talked about it, but no one did anything about it. But senators were so annoyed by the Republicans breaking their promise that they actually did do something about it. This is proof of two things. First, the old Senate, where a spirit of compromise reigned and collegial discussions could hammer out all but the thorniest issues, is dead. It’s been dead for a long time. But today, no one can deny it. Second, the Obama administration occasionally isn’t politically incompetent. President Obama’s desperate scrambling over his “keep your plan” promise may make you think that this is a government of bungling political noobs. But the actual nominees that triggered the nuclear option — three D.C. Circuit Court judges — were specifically proposed to force a confrontation over the filibuster. They’re almost ludicrously qualified, fairly moderate and previously uncontroversial. They were nominated all at once, so Republicans would have to justify blocking three judges. What happened today was an administration plan that worked more or less to perfection.
All year long, I’ve been writing about how this plan would fail. I didn’t think there was enough public will or senatorial annoyance to get it done. Obviously, I underestimated senatorial annoyance. And even though this reform only extends to judicial and executive nominees, because obviously this country would collapse into anarchy if we started passing laws only supported by a majority of the representatives of the American people, it pretty much means game over for the filibuster in general. Now it’s been established that a simple majority can and will change the Senate rules, what’s to stop them from doing it next time a popular law — like, I don’t know background checks for gun sales — gets blocked?
Two weeks ago, I wrote about how my correct predictions spell doom for America. It turns out the process works the other way too. When I’m wrong, things get better. I will be discussing this with my therapist.
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