Nuclear tyranny in the Senate

Deploying the “nuclear option” will both destroy bipartisanship and damage debate.

Senate Republicans are currently considering whether to change their age-old parliamentary rules to effectively disallow filibusters of judicial nominees. This idea is correctly referred to as the “nuclear option,” as relations between Democrats and Republicans would likely collapse. Outside of practical concerns pertaining to having a functioning government, deploying the nuclear option would enact tyranny of the majority.

If one party wants to prevent a vote (becuase they will lose it), it filibusters. This requires legislators seeking to stop the vote to literally talk nonstop on the Senate floor. But the other party may force its issue by voting for cloture, which closes debate and ends the filibuster. Currently, this requires 60 votes. Republicans are considering requiring only a simple majority to achieve cloture in the case of judicial nominations.

This will often mean that if either party has a majority in support to a judicial nominee, there will be no debate. Republicans are considering this because Democrats have (correctly) only used the filibuster sparingly, when the nominee is an exreme jurist. Republicans blocked far more Clinton administration judicial nominees, though they used tactics other than filibustering.

While Republican power has grown, many of the races were fairly close. (Read: The country is fairly divided.) It seems as if Senate Republicans no longer have any need for the often-trumpeted “bipartisanship.” If they go through with the nuclear option, it will cease to exist.

More troubling is the erosion of the little power a political minority has. As Ian Duncan Smith, former head of Britain’s Conservative Party, pointed out in a New York Times opinion piece, Britain revamped its debate rules to counter a frustrating minority, allowing officials to limit debate. The “guillotine” (Where do they come up with these wonderful names?) was sold as an exceptional measure but over time has become common.

Opposition parties serve a democracy by forcing the majority to discuss its policies. Today, our majority party is considering foreclosing such debate over judicial nominations.

If we start down this road, where does it end? Why not stop filibusters for anything the majority party decides is related to national security (which is, of course, everything)?

The nuclear option is, bad for our democracy. Hopefully, Republicans realize this. It’s likely they will be a minority at some point in the future. They might not like the idea so much then.