Nov 24 2013

Senate rule change alert! False warnings of Armageddon


Reform Party of California Commentary

On November 21, 2013, democrats in the U.S. senate voted 52-48 to prevent filibusters of most presidential federal court and other presidential nominees. The rule change does not apply to supreme court nominees. The prior rule had been in effect for over 200 years and was a means the senate used to prevent the majority party from simply ignoring the minority party, as the House of Representatives routinely does.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said the rule change was to eliminate the routine republican practice of “deny and obstruct” of judicial and executive branch nominees and return constitutional “advise and consent” to its proper place. The rule change is referred to as the “nuclear option” because it will fully poison the already hostile relations between senate democrats and republicans. The projected upshot is that nothing will get done because enraged republicans will, from now on, simply block everything they possibly can as retaliation for the loss of their power to block presidential nominees. Senate bipartisanship, which is nearly nonexistent will likely become fully extinct.

Although the republican leadership urged its members to not talk about retaliation, it is obvious that retaliation against democrats is exactly what is in store. Senator  John McCain (R-AZ) stated that Democrats would “pay a heavy, heavy price” for changing the Senate rules for judicial and executive nominees. Senator Richard C. Shelby (R-AL) said: “This is a mistake — a big one for the long run. Maybe not for the short run. Short-term gains, but I think it changes the Senate tremendously in a bad way.”

In the recent past, republicans tried to institute this same rule change, arguing that senate democrats were obstructing republican presidential nominees. In 2005, republican Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) had this to say in support of the nuclear option and the practice of democratic blocking of republican nominees “It’s time to move away from … advise and obstruct and get back to advise and consent.”

What planet are we on here?

What goes around, comes around. Good grief, what is this two-party nonsense?

When the minority party in the senate blocks (filibusters) nominees of a president in the opposite party, the majority party tends to want to impose the new rule to eliminate the 60 vote super majority needed to override the filibuster. At the same time the minority party tends to oppose it. The party opposing it always calls this rule change bad. Outside observers generally agree that the senate’s capacity to legislate will drop from feeble to essentially nonexistent. One bit of fallout is that the second round of the universally despised sequester is presumably more likely to take effect in January of 2104, although it probably was going into effect anyway.[1]

From the Reform Party of California’s (RPCA) point of view, it is easy to see what the fuss is about. However, there is absolutely no possible justification for any adverse consequence to the public interest or to governing. When republicans retaliate, they aim their poison at the democrats. The question is how does that help the public interest? Are the republicans saying that the people who voted democrats into power deserve punishment? If so, how does one punish that group without hurting the entire public interest, including republicans? The whole uproar makes no sense at all. None.

As far as the RPCA can tell, there is nothing wrong with the rule change, particularly in light of the fact that (i) republicans had been blocking essentially all presidential nominees (that impairs governance) and (ii) the arguments used by each side to support or oppose the rule change flipped depending on who was in power and who was trying to block whom. Simple logic says that neither side has any compelling reason to oppose or support the new rule. Given that, the RPCA is comfortable with the new rule and justifies that by arguing that (i) the new rule simply reflects the consequences of who wins and loses elections, i.e., its just the will of the people, and (ii) neither party will do anything differently when they are in power in the senate than they otherwise would have with the rule in place, i.e., are the republicans really going to consent to bad or unqualified nominees when their turn at “revenge” comes? It sounds like kids fighting on the playground over not much of anything.

If anyone would argue differently, they need to first think very, very carefully about what they are saying and what it means.[2]

What this sorry mess shows is the profound, blinding hold that the two-party system and its bitter, constipated thinking has on its partisans and politicians.[3] Both sides honestly believe what they argue today, while completely ignoring the fact that they argued the opposite side’s points when the shoe was on the other foot. The whole thing is sheer nonsense.[4] No wonder many or most Americans no longer trust the two-party system. There is no solid basis for trust.


1. Democrats and republicans in congress universally despise the sequester as inefficient and stupid. Although that is true, the sequester is probably the only way to to begin to address spending given the profound hatred the two parties hold for each other. Even before the new rule went into effect, there was no basis to expect that the two sides in the senate could intelligently legislate any longer. The new rule may put another nail in that coffin, but the lid already was pretty much pounded into place. It is therefore not clear how much worse the new rule makes things.

2. The best argument to leave the old rule in place is that without it, the president in power and his party controlling the senate will nominate and approve nominees that are even more ideologically extreme than the ideologues that dominate now. Most or all democratic and republican ideologues strive for ideological purity in themselves and view for reality. However, if that is a bad thing, why? This is why: Ideology doesn’t solve problems, it obscures facts and issues and distorts thinking. That might serve ideology but its effect on problem solving is a crap shoot. Pragmatic non-ideological problem solving solves problems. That potential problem is counterbalanced by the actual problem of too many nominees being held up for political reasons. The U.S. senate itself characterizes the advice and consent requirement as largely political in practice: President George Washington “had asserted that he would consider political loyalty as a factor in selecting key officeholders, but he vowed that subordinate posts would be filled only on merit.” In other words, nominating federal judges and office holders always was and still is is based as much or on more on party or ideological loyalty than merit. In RPCA opinion that is unacceptable. It doesn’t have to be that way. However, basing nominees on merit instead of politics requires political action to be public interest focused instead of focused on self-interest, i.e., political. That will not happen in our self-centered two-party political system because loyalty and ideology trump everything else.

3. This situation is just like the old General Motors vs. labor union fights of the 1960s and 1970s. Both side were so intent on strangling each other to death that they failed to see what they were doing to the business as a whole. It all ended a few decades later with bankruptcy and a public bailout. Management and the unions blindly went right over the cliff with their hands wrapped around each others’ throat. The situation for congressional democrats and republicans today is basically the same.

4. Republicans complain that the new rule will cause the senate to be a worse institution and/or less-fettered majority rule will be a bad thing. If that happens, the RPCA and reasonable people would assume that once republicans gain control of the senate, they would correct the error and restore the prior rule by a simple majority vote. If they didn’t do that, then whose interests would the republicans be serving: The public interest or their own emotional needs? Based on the rhetoric, it sounds like the republicans want revenge but that doesn’t sound anything like service to the public interest. Once again, the two-party system displays one of its fundamental traits – self-service before service to the pubic interest.