Friday, November 22, 2013

The Nukular Option: Reid Gets Rid Of Part Of The Senate Filibuster

It's JUST Like This
Today the Democratically controlled Senate invoked the so-called "Nuclear Option." They modified the Senate rules so that a simple majority vote can confirm judges. You can still filibuster legislation--but now a minority force can't stop appointments.

How Come?
Why'd they do this? There are a number of reasons but the key one is this: the judicial appointments Republicans are blocking could have serious consequences on Obama's second term agenda, much of which will be litigated in DC circuit courts. This is also a big deal: In recent years the filibuster has become a significant player in partisan politics (which is, you know, all politics in the modern age):

Here's a graph:
It looks kinda like a ... hockey stick
What Now?
In one sense, nothing: the Republicans still control the House and are likely to for the next three years. Making the Senate more majority friendly doesn't make it easier to pass legislation. It also doesn't exactly apply to actual legislation (bills) so ... uh ... so what?

On the other hand, it means that the previous norms are out the window. Here are some possibilities for the future:

  • Oh, So That's How You Want To Play It? The filibuster is the only way to totally stop legislation--but it sure isn't the only way to slow it down. If the Republicans Strike Back they could do maximal obstruction on every vote and bring the upper house to its knees.
  • Our Turn Now! When the Republicans get control of the Senate (in 2014 of course) they could remove the entire filibuster in justified retaliation (well, 'justified retaliation,' anyway) and then use that to pass legislation at will through both houses landing every piece of whimsy on Obama's desk.
  • You Made Your Bed. If nothing else, when the Republicans win the presidency and hold the Senate they can nominate actually conservative judges (not that they'd have done that before!).

The Question: Desperate or Confident?
The reason this is happening now--and the way it did is this: The current and historically unusual climate of polarization.
101 Congress is George H.W. Bush (Link from 2010)
When most votes are party-line then "enough to pass something" becomes 51 votes instead of 60: no one (almost) 'defects.' This didn't use to be the case (and was, apparently, nearly inconceivable when the filibuster rules were changed so you didn't have to actually, you know, filibuster). In that climate, if you want to pass something you need a smaller margin.

Of course this makes 2014 control of the Senate do-or-die for both parties and, honestly, the Republicans don't look so bad there (there are 6 retiring Democrats compared to 2 retiring Republicans and 21 Democrats on the ballot compared to 14 Republicans). Clearly, to risk the entire upper chamber, Reid must feel either desperate or confident.

According to the Center For Politics it's razor thin: Likely 50 D, 48 R, two Toss-up.

So the analysis here is that Reid is doing this specifically to help President Obama (who needs to get his nominations through Congress) rather than the Democrats as a whole (who are not guaranteed to hold the Senate and almost certainly will not get the House).

NOTES: Here is a Nuclear Option Explainer from 2005 when the shoe was on the other foot!


  1. Don't you think there will be any election-time fall out from the government shutdown (etc) fiasco, re voter disaffection with the increasingly irrational and uncompromising, burn-all-bridges posture of the 'tea-party' (or other) candidates put forward by the GOP?

    1. I posted a reply--but not sure what happened to it.

      The answer boils down to a couple of things:
      (a) Which election? 2014 or 2016? What happens today will be FAR more important in 2014. As Obama will not be on the ticket in 2016 the echoes of today will be very different.

      (b) Over time--and I will take 48 hours to 60 days--elections tend to revert to their fundamentals. This means things like "incumbents tend to win" and "the state of the economy is the key indicator for the president." Both of these were true in 2012 and were, arguably, the deciding factors.

      (c) That said, it is possible to suffer 'brand damage.' It is undeniable that the Tea Party has suffered damage. The Republicans have. Obama probably has. In order to suffer Brand Damage the 'event' must play into your narrative--the publicly accepted narrative in a way that "sticks."

      This is why Obama-Is-A-Socialist didn't play well (and, therefore, why You-Didn't-Build-That didn't make a dent). Obama's 'brand'--his general public image--is not as a communist or anti-business crusader. Oh, sure, a lot of people believe he's both--but they are *already* voting 'R.'

      The question is whether people who might be on the fence will have decided that maybe the R's can't be allowed to govern (the shutdown) or the D's 'good intentions' will destroy everything they touch (Obamacare meltdown). If some of this sticks it'll have an impact but it may not be a large one.

      (d) Polls show that 'Tea Party' is a negative descriptor in a state-wide or national election. Unless that dramatically changes it'll haunt Ted Cruz in 2016. The question will be whether candidates can adopt enough TP positions to bring the base while not quite carrying the flag. Scott Walker could maybe do this. Rick Perry too was, to quote Don Henley "Sane enough to be crazy."

      I think we'll see judicious use of the Tea Party label in 2014 and a candidate who isn't totally engulfed in them in 2016.

      So basically, no: the ramifications of what happens today will be minor and there will be moves to limit what is said in the future. Unless the 'civil war' continues or some additional nonsense happens in mid-to-late 2014 I think it'll be a fundamentals election (which means look to the political scientists to run the numbers).

  2. I tend to agree. Memory is short (on both sides of the divide), and over not very much time, voters drift to the party 'fundamentals' as you say.
    Interesting comment re "In order to suffer Brand Damage...". Will have to keep that thought in mind as I observe the political world.