Politics & Policy

Don’t Nuke the Filibuster

It is a tool for limited government.

With Senate Democrats still refusing to allow a vote on funding the Department of Homeland Security — in part because the Republicans’ bill defunds the president’s executive action on immigration, an issue they fear voting on — some on the right are calling for Senate Republicans to “go nuclear” and eliminate all uses of the filibuster. Advocates of the nuclear option note that Harry Reid pioneered it back in 2013, when he eliminated most filibusters on presidential nominees, and they argue that nuking the filibuster the rest of the way would benefit the GOP politically.

While nuclear-option advocates are no doubt well intended, they are both tactically and strategically mistaken. Exercising the nuclear option would not even be winning a battle only to lose the war; it would be losing the war to execute a military maneuver that might not even help win a battle.

In the short term, going nuclear would at most provide Republicans with a couple of extra talking points. Republicans could blame the White House for vetoing the DHS bill — as President Obama has already vowed to do — rather than Senate Democrats for not allowing a vote. However, it’s not clear what would really be gained. Blaming the White House doesn’t give the GOP much more real leverage, and it doesn’t avoid the real procedural obstacle: the promised veto itself, which would trigger a showdown with Congress and possibly a “shutdown” of the department, whose funding expires Friday.

For this small-to-nonexistent gain, Republicans would trade away a valuable tool for limited government. A source of constant frustration for many far-left ideologues is the prevalence of checks and balances throughout the federal government. These checks and balances make it hard to impose radical change upon the country. As even nuclear-option proponent Charles Krauthammer has long argued, American politics has often been played between the 40-yard lines; in many European nations, by contrast, the political extremes tend to exert more influence. The institutional DNA of the United States — especially the difficulty of passing new laws — might help explain some of this emphasis on political moderation.

If one wants to push for more extreme change, modifying that institutional DNA should be a first order of business. With its emphasis on consensus, the Senate has often proven a stumbling block for radicals. Senate rules, unlike House rules, make it hard for a narrow majority to take total control of the institution.

The nuclear option takes direct aim at these rules. Under Rule XXII, it takes a two-thirds vote of the Senate to change Senate rules (as invoking cloture on a rules change requires a two-thirds supermajority). The nuclear option, essentially, is the decision of a slight majority to ignore Rule XXII. If 51 votes can ignore Senate rules at whim, Senate rules become little more than vague recommendations — and the ability of a radical faction to ram through its vision substantially increases.

There’s still a chance that the excesses of Harry Reid’s tenure as majority leader, including his nuclear detonation, will be remembered as a frenzied interlude in the history of the U.S. Senate. However, if Republicans take the nuclear option to the next level, those excesses will probably instead be a precedent for a more fractious Senate. Peddlers of a radical agenda might be gratified by this change — imagine how sweeping the Obama agenda of 2009–10 could have been without the filibuster! — but proponents of a more sober politics will be disappointed.

— Fred Bauer is a writer from New England. He blogs at A Certain Enthusiasm, and his work has been featured in numerous publications.


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