Monday, November 25, 2013

Changing the Game

The Senate voted to amend its own procedural rules last Thursday, altering the filibuster rule so that a simple majority of 51 votes, rather than a super-majority of 60 votes, can end debate on executive appointments.

The decision has received a lot of attention and the general impression of this "nuclear option" is that in the short term it means President Obama's stalled appointments will go through, helping implement his favored policies, but in the longer term it could lead to the Republican opposition further entrenching itself and, if the GOP regains the Senate majority and the Presidency, using the rule for political retaliation.

Obviously, changing the standing rules of the Senate is not something that should be done lightly, but in this case I am on the side that it had to be done. It is one thing to hold up an appointment for legitimate concerns about competency and qualifications, and wholly another thing to hold up appointments for the sake of bargaining chips or to thwart the implementation of policies.

The departmental and judicial appointments the president makes are important to the proper functioning of the government. The duly-elected President, whether or not you agree with him or her, decides who fills these positions. The Senate has some say with its responsibility to advise and consent, but that means when the body does consent to a nominee, that nominee should be confirmed.

The efforts of Republican Senators to block President Obama's appointments at every step in the process has been absurd and gone far beyond the pale of Senate behavior toward any other administration.

The bar of 51 U.S. Senators is still something and should be sufficient to prevent incompetent or unqualified appointees. The proper role of the Senate will still be exercised, they are simply limiting their own ability to abuse the power. My guess is that soon enough the new rules will be accepted by both sides and seem the norm.

This change to the filibuster system will hopefully allow Senate Republicans to focus on legislation rather than obstructing appointments for partisan purposes. Senate Democrats in turn will hopefully also work on passing legislation and continue to reach out to Republicans.

Unfortunately, it's a bit more likely that the partisanship that made this change necessary will continue and Republicans will use the rule change as an excuse to spark more partisan bickering and foul play between the two parties.

The real problem, in my opinion, is that we have a system in which Senators can block legislation simply by threatening to filibuster. Senators should have to actually hold the floor in debate, physically stand and speak as long as they can to delay a vote for the purposes of changing the minds of their fellow Senators. They should have to go through something at least that difficult if they think their stance is important enough to hold up the work of the Senate in service of the American people. The filibuster as a strategy should be reserved for the things Senators deeply care about and aren't simply trying to delay, so they should have to show everyone that that is the case. Then maybe we wouldn't have to turn to fictional Senators for inspiration.

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