Friday, November 22, 2013

Filibusters and the nuclear option

I am saddened by the decision of the Democratic majority (but credit West Virginia’s Senator Manchin as one of the few Democrats to vote against this) to invoke the “nuclear option” reducing the votes needed to stop a filibuster from 60 to 50 (if the Vice-President breaks the tie vote). I think this will join the Citizens United v. FEC case as one of the major contributors to the loss of our American democracy.

I don’t deny that the minority party has been more obstructionist than ever before. However, it seems to me that there was a better solution than invoking the nuclear option that, only a few years ago, the Democrats were crying foul about when the Republicans suggested this option.

To me, the solution would be to go back to the true meaning of a filibuster—as was demonstrated in the classic Jimmy Stewart movie “Mr. Smith goes to Washington” (hopefully some of my former students will remember this movie). Back in 1975, a Senate rule change meant that a Senator only needed to announce his or her intention to filibuster to require a 60 vote “supermajority” to move legislation. No longer did they have to stand and openly talk about their opposition. It became too easy to use the simple threat of filibuster as an obstruction tactic.

It would have been better to get rid of the 1975 rule change than go nuclear. If minority members (whether Republicans now or Democrats prior to 2009) want to filibuster, make them stand in the well of the Senate and explain to the public why they oppose a particular measure or nomination. The glare of the spotlight (we didn’t have a 24/7 news cycle in 1975) would often show their thin arguments on the merits and demonstrate to the world that it was really about obstructionism.

If they were actually required to articulate their opposition, and to do it for a long and physically exhausting period of time blocking other activities in the Senate, then some might re-think whether it was really worth it. The general public would grow tired of these childish tactics, and I think filibuster usage would soon decrease from where it is now. It could still be used when absolutely necessary, but not for every little action.

The best part is that this solution would not have had the same impact on party polarization. Heck, the GOP’s Rand Paul already has shown his willingness to use the classic filibuster (plus Ted Cruz’s effort, while more of a soliloquy and not a real filibuster, was a bit similar). For the Democrats to go nuclear, just five years after they were in the minority and up in arms about it being used against them, is very short-sighted. Yesterday’s decision will likely come back to haunt them when they are in the minority. It will only lead to further political polarization, which is a terrible thing. To me, our democracy requires leaders who can compromise for bipartisan solutions, rather than those who use their temporary majority status for a power grab.

Somehow it is probably fitting that I am writing this on the anniversary of JFK’s assassination, which—when historians of the future look back over the centuries to our era—will probably be seen as the beginning of the end of the American empire. Yesterday’s vote is yet another contribution to this decline. But I still cling to my idealistic hope that things can get better.

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