Last week Democrats took a step 200 years in the making. More specifically, Democrats eliminated the minority’s ability to filibuster executive nominees by changing Senate rules to require only a simple majority (50 or 51 Senators) to approve the nominee’s appointment (minus Supreme Court justices). The move indicates several facets of the upper chamber and will have deep repercussions for the nation moving forward.
First-off, the action indicates Democratic frustration with GOP opposition to numerous Presidential nominees. Democrats point to GOP opposition to Chuck Hagel’s appointment as Secretary of Defense or Consumer Financial Protection Bureau director Rich Cordray. Notably, both these appointments ultimately went through. Parties threatening to use the “Nuclear Option” is nothing new. Republicans threatened to use it in 05 and 06 if Democrats did not allow Bush’s Supreme Court nominees to move forward. But they never took the final step. Democrats, fed up with GOP opposition to liberal nominees on the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, did.
It is important to understand the Senate was designed to be a slow body where consensus was almost always required (hence closure votes requiring 3/5th support). Among those voting in support of eliminating the filibuster for executive nominees were many Democrats elected in 2008 who have consistently expressed frustration with the slow nature of the Senate. Perhaps somebody should give them a civics lesson. The growing partisan divide in the upper chamber likely played a big role in their final decisions.
Though few Americans may note the action its consequences are likely to play out long-term. One potential consequence is that nominees for judicial and executive positions could be purely ideological pawns. If you know you only need 50 or 51 votes and your party is unlikely to deny you your executive appointments why would any GOP or Democratic President feel the need to nominate center-right or left nominees? This could give the country right and left-wing hacks that are setting everything from environmental to health policy to legal precedent.
Republicans once they gain the majority (and they will someday) will likely feel little compunction to not use the tool the Democrats have given them. Another potential consequence of Democrats actions might be that someday the Nuclear Option is expanded to go beyond Executive nominees. If a Senate majority feels populist or powerful enough they may just decide to turn the Senate into a smaller House of Representatives (simple majority rules) and eliminate the 60 vote requirements for closure and to end debate on bills or even make a Supreme Court confirmation a simply majority vote.
One would also have to be blind to not note the move comes as the President’s approval is falling due to Obamacare and the polls are turning against Democrats nationally. The President’s approval has dropped not because Republicans or Independents have left him (they did a long time ago) but because Democrats have fallen out of love with their leader. Election polls have also started to show a trend of the Democratic share of the electorate in key states shrinking (indicating they are not going to vote). Eliminating the filibuster to allow more liberal Presidential nominees to move forward would thus seem to be aimed at pleasing the base. I suspect the base is more worried about the disaster that is the Healthcare law.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid heavily pushed the Nuclear Option arguing GOP opposition was hurting the country. I have heard this argument echoed in numerous blogs and Facebook debates. Never-mind the answer to the question is deeply rooted in partisan preferences. However, it is Harry Reid who may deeply wound the country. By allowing a President and his party the ability to get what they want by a simple majority the accumulation of power within the Executive Branch is only likely to intensify. Republicans would be foolish not to use the tool once they gain power to push their agenda even if it means using more power in the Executive. This further leads to the marginalization of Congress and the American public. Especially if the President and his party use this power to put ideologically pure candidates on federal benches. Ironic that Harry Reid would not consider this as he is a leader in the Legislative Branch.
Irony aside, the implementation of the Nuclear Option will be bad medicine for the country long-term and not benefit Democrats short-term. The Executive Branch accumulates more power from such an action and Congress’s and the Court’s oversight authority is further eroded. Meanwhile, freshman Democratic Senators think they have down the country a favor when all they have done is weaken their party and the institution they serve in.