November 26, 2013 | by Peter Rosenstein
‘Nuclear option’ needed to overcome filibusters
United States Capitol Building, dome, gay news, Washington Blade, filibusters

(Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key).

The minority in the Senate, be it Republican or Democrat, have been afraid of debating presidential appointments to administration positions and judicial openings below the Supreme Court and deciding them by majority vote. After the vote last week to end filibusters in these areas there was much gnashing of teeth on all sides.

The Washington Post editorial “After filibuster vote, both parties will face nasty ‘nuclear’ fallout” said, “Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) proved not enough of a leader to resist the naked power grab. American democracy is that much poorer as a result.”

The New York Times in its editorial “Democracy Returns to the Senate” said, “Today’s vote was an appropriate use of that power, and it was necessary to turn the Senate back into a functioning legislative body.”

Over the past decade partisanship has reached new levels and political fights in Congress are now more oriented toward debating philosophical differences rather than looking for compromise that will serve the people well. Many attribute this to the gerrymandering of congressional districts, which created more safe seats for members of a particular party. In the Senate, more politicians get elected with slogans without actually having to discuss what their positions and votes in the Senate will mean to their constituents. Because of the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, huge amounts of money from both the far right and far left are being poured into campaigns and that often overwhelms any rational debate.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) was able to lead the fight trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act gaining enough support from other Tea Party members of Congress, against the will of many of his Senate colleagues, to close down the government. He was and is still able to disregard the issue of what it means that 25 percent of Texans, his constituents, don’t have health insurance and he has no apparent plan to get them coverage.

There is enough money pouring into the right wing of the Republican Party to threaten primaries against anyone who dares speak out against them. There is a willingness to threaten filibusters over every political appointee that the president sends to the Senate regardless of their qualifications simply to make a point and stymie him.

It was with this background that the Democrats in the Senate used rules that they had only threatened to use before and took the action they did to end the pointless filibusters.

Many share my view of our democracy, which is that we elect a president with the anticipation that he or she will be able to put together an administration to try to move forward the agenda on which they were elected. They should be able to appoint qualified judges who promise to judge cases based on the law but may have a worldview more in tune with the elected president who is appointing them. That has always been the case for Supreme Court nominees but since that is the court of last resort in protecting the Constitution, those nominees will continue to get much more scrutiny and the minority party will still be able to use the filibuster to try to stop those nominations should they feel inclined to do so.

For many years the filibuster was a rarely used threat. We must remember that this was not thought of when the Senate was formed but was added by senators at a later date. It was assumed that it would be seldom used because the members of the Senate, being the more deliberative body of Congress, would also understand the art of compromise. In recent years that has clearly changed and the minority party has tried to have much more sway over the people the president wants to help him/her carry out their agenda. This has led to gridlock in many areas and openings in the executive branch and on the courts going unfilled for months or even years at a time. Just a quick look at the number of cloture votes (a vote needed to end a filibuster) shows where we are today. There were 38 in the eight years of George W. Bush and there are already 81 in less than five years of Obama’s presidency.

Neither Democrats nor Republicans should fear the appointment of people to the administration or the courts who share the views of the president. That is what elections are for. Should the people not like the direction of the country they will vote against it in off-year elections for the House and Senate and in presidential elections every four years. I would rather trust the people than a small group of radical senators to do the right thing.

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