Going Nuclear: What Goes Around Comes Around

The recent confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, passed along the narrowest margin in modern American history, highlights an issue that is at the heart of American politics. This issue, called “the nuclear option,” is embedded in longstanding but rarely-discussed Senate rules.

This issue is the radioactive death of bipartisanship in the US Senate.

These obscure rules, in brief, set the parameters for filibusters: indefinite speeches given on the Senate floor, usually by the minority party, designed to stall proceedings. So powerful an obstruction is the filibuster that it has led to bills being dropped from the agenda. Even the threat of a filibuster can prevent some votes from ever occurring. Ordinarily, such deliberations are ended by a 3/5 vote invoking cloture, though the required percentage of votes varies based on type of vote. The 60-vote majority required for confirmation of Presidential appointees has seldom been held by one party, usually forcing the majority party to confirm appointees with the cooperation of the minority.

The 50-48 Kavanaugh vote is the most recent episode in this tragic saga, but certainly not the source of the problem. The story begins in Harry Reid’s Democrat-controlled Senate in 2013. Faced by consistently rigid Republican opposition, Democrats decided to use their simple majority in a procedural vote to lower the threshold for cloture when confirming non-SCOTUS nominees. This allowed them to confirm Obama appointees unilaterally and silence Republican dissent on the Senate floor. This “nuclear option” enabled Senate Democrats to pursue their political agenda at the expense of future bipartisanship. It also set them up for disaster when they lost their Senate majority.

The Senate majority changed hands following the 2014 midterm elections. With the Democrats in the minority, they filibustered 2017 SCOTUS appointee Neil Gorsuch. Senate Republicans, taking a page from their opponents’ playbook, extended the scope of the “nuclear option” to also include SCOTUS nominees. Now able to invoke cloture with a simple majority, they prevented a Democratic filibuster of Kavanaugh’s confirmation. This act, like the similar one perpetrated four years earlier by Democrats, punched another nail into the coffin of bipartisan governance. Unfettered by any further need to reach across the aisle, Senate Republicans are free to govern unilaterally.

The Founding Fathers were adamant in their fear of mob rule, their faith in the rule of law, and their conviction to rule in the interest of all. These fears and convictions applied not only to the king-like powers of the President, but to the other parts of the government as well. The principle perhaps most central to the US Constitution is the balance of power. 

The Democrats in the Senate displayed brazen disregard for that principle in 2013. The Senate Republicans under Mitch McConnell have displayed equal disregard since 2017. The outcry of the minority party is drowned out by their deafening hypocrisy, both then and now. Republicans stand to benefit from their equally hypocritical use of the nuclear option in the short term, just as the Democrats did before. 

But what will they do when they eventually lose their razor-thin majority?


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About Nat Paul

To learn more about the author, check out the "About Us" page. Behind Enemy Lines Radio is a national Award-Winning radio show / podcast broadcasting live out of the belly of the Democratic beast - "The People's Republic of" New York City that airs on multiple radio stations as part of the Talk America Radio Network. It is also an "Insider" column on Newsmax featuring show hosts Gene Berardelli and Russell Gallo. The show is also available on multiple networks across the internet, with more being added regularly.

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