Sometime early next week Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) will bring seven of President Obama's stalled nominees to the floor for a vote. But in order to advance to an up-or-down, yay-or-nay vote, each of the nominations must first receive 60 votes in order to break a filibuster. It's not so much that the Senate has found these men and women -- who the president has nominated to lead the Labor Department, Environmental Protection Agency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and fill posts on the National Labor Relations Board -- it is not that they have been found wanting, incompetent or of dubious moral character. No, these nominations -- as well as the lion's share of legislation before the United States Senate -- have been summarily blocked by filibustering Republicans, either because they have a jaundiced view of the agencies in question, or simply because they don't want to hand President Obama and his Democratic colleagues a single victory.
Faced with the daunting challenge of finding the 60 votes needed to break the various filibusters, Senator Reid has thrown down the political gauntlet, threatening to use the so-called "nuclear option": altering Senate rules on executive branch nominations to allow them to pass on a simple majority vote. "This is about making Washington work regardless of who's the president," the Nevada Democrat said in a heated debate that consumed the better part of a senate day. "The constant obstruction in this chamber has gone on long enough." Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), feigning the outrage of an idealistic freshman, declared Reid's threatened action "one of the most consequential changes to the United States Senate in the history of our nation." The Kentucky senator further charged that Democrats wanted to replace the Senate's mandate of "advise and consent" with "sit down and shut up." McConnell's Republican colleagues further warned Leader Reid and the Democrats that use of the so-called nuclear option would lead them to "shut down the Senate for the rest of the congressional term" and make the filibuster the centerpiece of their campaign in next year's election. Now there's a winning issue . . .
This is by no means the first time the United States Senate has heard the words "nuclear option." The term was coined by former Senate Majority leader Trent Lott (R-MS) more than a decade ago, and has been used by leaders of both partys ever since. Back in 2005, when Democrats were in the minority, Senator Reid opposed a threatened Republican-backed rule change that would have ended the filibuster for judicial nominations -- something which Democrats were doing rather successfully. Back then, it was Senator Reid who defended the filibuster as one of the senate's most important rules, calling it "a tool that serves the long-term interest of the Senate and the American people and our country." It's as if there are two scripts that keep getting passed back and forth between the two senate leaders: one, which sees the filibuster as a fiat from Mt. Sinai; and the other, which proclaims it to be the work of the devil. In other words, whether one is pro- or anti-nuclear option depends not on one's party affiliation, not on whether one is a conservative Republican or a progressive Democrat, but solely on whether one's party is in the majority or the minority. And because the current majority (which hates filibusters and threatens the nuclear option) will one day find itself back in the minority (and thus committed to using the filibuster) that makes everyone a hypocrite.
Including yours truly.
Back in April 2005, I published a piece entitled Where Is Jefferson Smith When We Need Him? In it, I took then-Senators Bill Frist (R-TN) and Rick Santorum (R-PA) to task for threatening to use the nuclear option against Senate Democrats -- then a minority -- for using the filibuster against some of President George W. Bush's judicial nominees. In that essay I wrote, "Without the ability to filibuster, minority voices cease to be heard; other points of view are shushed into oblivion. Not only is this dangerous; it is downright undemocratic." The essay ended with what one might say was a touch of clairvoyance:
But, as the old saw goes, "what goes around comes around." If the Republicans want to outlaw the filibuster, their day will come. For as sure as God made little green apples, the Democrats will one day once again hold a Senate majority. And at that time, the filibuster, which in 2005 looked like such a dangerous weapon, will be their best friend. But there won't be a thing they can do about it.
Shortly after the 2010 election -- in which Democrats lost the House and six Senate seats -- New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall and Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, both Democrats, called for a "real filibuster" that would make senators show up and talk -- to, in the words of Senator Majority Whip Dick Durbin "park their fanny on the floor." What they were after wasn't just a return to the Huey Long, Strom Thurmond, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" filibuster of yore. Modern filibusters are so lacking in theatre as to be nearly invisible. In most cases, the modern filibuster is typically a threat to deny cloture--60 votes--to move ahead on a bill . . . any bill . . . even those which heretofore were considered merely procedural. Despite Udall and Merkley's good intentions, their reform effort was sandbagged by Harry Reid; that old "what goes around comes around" syndrome of which I wrote back in '05.
But as of last week, it would appear that Senator Reid has had a change of heart; that he is more concerned about getting things done today -- this session -- than worrying about what will happen when he and his Democratic colleagues will one day inevitably return to the minority side of the aisle.
Harry Reid has changed his mind . . . and so have I. A change in Senate procedure is both warranted and wise: if you want to filibuster, you have to stand and deliver. If you wish to bring a filibuster to a close let it take a simple majority. The work of the nation -- jobs, health care, education, infrastructure, the proper functioning of our courts, agencies and regulatory boards -- require debate, compromise and action, not political jockeying in the hopes of making the other side look bad in the next election. Both sides have to stow their mock outrage and depart the Land of Oz; the curtain has been parted and revealed the bipartisan hypocrisy that for too long has lurked behind.
Put the filibuster out of its -- and our -- misery.
For the good of America, it's about time that democracy trump hypocrisy.
-2013 Kurt F. Stone