US Senate Used ‘Nuclear Option’ to Destroy Itself
April 7, 2017
The government institution that once called itself the “world’s greatest deliberative body” this week made a decision that will forever change the way it operates, and the way its decisions will be perceived in the future.
On Thursday, while the U.S. military was bombing targets in Syria, the Senate lowered the vote threshold needed to confirm Supreme Court nominees from 60 votes to a simple majority of 50 plus one. Although that may seem like a small change, and the consequences may seem insignificant, the change reflects the loss of real statesmanship and responsible governance in the country’s upper house of government.
Senators from both parties have threatened to use the “nuclear option” for years, but neither party really wanted to take the step of lowering the vote requirement for Supreme Court nominations, one of the lasting impacts the Senate can have on our society. What goes around, comes around, and no one in the majority ever really wanted to be abused when their party inevitably ends up in the minority.
From its inception in the Constitution, the Senate has been the perceived (and often, actually acts as) a check on our politics, fulfilling the idea the founding fathers had for the institution. Senators’ six year terms were designed to insulate the majority of them from the politics of the day, offering a relief valve for the sometimes-feverish actions of Congress members that run every two years. Its name itself comes from the Latin word senatus, or council of elders, suggesting a more thoughtful approach to governance than the relatively younger makeup of the House.
James Madison championed the Senate as a legislative body that would act more like the British House of Lords, which was constituted mostly from landowners and elites that had a vested interest in protecting the status quo, thereby tempering the often-aggressive reforms or initiatives launched by the House of Commons, made up of more liberal and upwardly mobile representatives.
The U.S. Senate has maintained a more respectful manner, enforcing rules against attacking colleagues from the floor, and showing more restraint in dealing with the issues of the day. Senators, often serving for longer periods that their congressional counterparts, have tended to be more seasoned politicians having previously served either in the House or, often, as state Governors. Senators have historically worked across party lines and found common-ground on legislation, budget impasses, and nominations.
The history of the Senate is full of examples of great statesmen that helped guide the country through wars, economic turmoil, and even political crisis. Long-serving Senators became famous, including Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Robert Byrd, Ted Kennedy, and even Joe Biden. Democrats and Republicans alike, they all honored the unique position of the Senate in our democracy.
But in the past 10 years, however, the partisanship in Washington, D.C., has been growing more divisive, and the Senate has let itself slide toward the bitter divisions that have dominated the presidential campaigns and the congressional agenda of the day. The days of bipartisanship have gone bye-bye.
Especially since the election of Barack Obama in 2008, the Senate has taken a dramatic turn for the worse, engaging in and sometimes leading the partisan battles that have become common today. In 2009, when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said his number one goal was to deny newly elected President Obama a second term, the die was cast for a divided Senate more focused on winning political battles than leading our country.
After eight years of non-stop partisan battles, last year the Republican-led Senate took a shocking stand, and one that foreshadowed this week’s rule change.
In February of last year, within hours of the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Senator McConnell declared that the Senate would not consider any nomination made by President Obama, even though a new president wouldn’t be sworn in for 391 days. McConnell withheld Senate hearings on Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland, a federal judge that was well qualified to serve on the high court.
That brazen political move by the Senate to deny Obama his rightful appointment set up this week’s showdown. Republicans, still led by McConnell, threatened to change the vote threshold if Democrats tried to block the nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch. Gorsuch himself wasn’t really the issue; it was more that Republicans and the new President didn’t even seem interested in trying to reach out to Democrats.
This Thursday, the Senate, voting along its 52-48 party lines, changed the long-standing rule that Supreme Court nomination required 60 votes. With one vote, the Senate lost the one thing that distinguished itself from the often-unruly House of Representatives; the minority’s protection from the majority. The 60-vote rule enforced a sense of bipartisanship that is now gone forever.
It now seems the Senate will be run by a razor thin majority, so fragile that the party in power can change every two years like the House. Republicans won the battle today, and got their nominee on the Supreme Court, but they will soon rue the day.
Democrats will surely remember the sting of today’s vote, and when they regain power again someday, they will, surely, return the favor in kind. The political tit-for-tat will now never end, for each side feels justified in their recalcitrant position.
And the country will be worse off for it, for sure.
Today was a sad day for our democracy.