Backseat Nuclear

Yesterday the Senate voted to change its rules to determine that a 60-vote supermajority requirement does not apply to Supreme Court nominations.  The decision means that it will no longer be possible to filibuster Supreme Court nominations, which now can be approved by a simple majority vote.  That reality, in turn, clears the way for Neil Gorsuch to take a seat on the nation’s highest court.

868d7f9c0a0d02b700028bdae62105edAlthough everybody has called the procedural change “the nuclear option,” this whole spiraling process has always struck me as less like a tense, world-threatening confrontation between countries equipped with atomic weapons and more like a dispute between two bored and bratty kids sitting in the back seat of the family car.  Things escalate, suddenly the kids are pushing and shoving and yelling while the parents in the front seat try to break things up and calm things down, and in the end each red-faced kid blames the other for starting it.

In this case, Republicans blame Democrats for being the first to exercise the nuclear option, and Democrats respond that Republican intransigence forced that decision.  Republicans blame Democrats for reflexively opposing President Trump’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, despite his obvious qualifications, and Democrats respond that the Republicans’ refusal to even consider President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland, who also was qualified for the Supreme Court, is what created the current atmosphere.  You really wondered what the parties were going to do absent this procedural change — automatically oppose all Supreme Court nominations by the President of the opposing party until the Supreme Court itself has vanished through age and attrition?

During those grim family car trips, the squabbling kids calm down, the journey continues, and the parents breathe sighs of exasperation and then relief.  Is that going to happen here and — as the parents in this scenario — how are exasperated American voters going to react?  The filibuster was a means of preserving some modicum of power for the minority and of requiring at least a nod to civility and consensus-building, but it also was a self-imposed rule that allowed individual Senators to feel self-important.  If it’s gone, it means that Senatorial privileges have been reduced and that those depictions of the U.S. Senate as “the world’s greatest deliberative body” inhabited by statesman have been further undermined, because true statesmen, regardless of party, would never have allowed things to reach this embarrassing level.  

But, in this day and age, is anyone really surprised that the U.S. Senate is home to a bunch of partisan hacks, on both sides of the aisle, who have put party and interest groups ahead of the national interest?

Advertisements

Droning On

Yesterday Kentucky Senator Rand Paul staged an old-fashioned filibuster on the Senate floor.  Paul held the floor for almost 13 hours until the urgent call of nature caused him to yield the floor at about 1 a.m. this morning.

The target of Senator Paul’s filibuster was the nomination of John Brennan to lead the Central Intelligence Agency — but the broader target was the Obama Administration’s drone program.  Attorney General Eric Holder has refused to rule out the possibility that the President could lawfully order drone strikes on American citizens on American soil under extraordinary circumstances, such as a terrorist attack akin to September 11.  Paul considers that position frightening and an affront to due process rights of American citizens, and that’s why he took to the Senate floor.

I don’t agree with Senator Paul on many issues, but I applaud his use of the filibuster to draw attention to the drone issue, which I think has largely flown under the radar of the American public.  We need to have a national discussion about our use of drones, both in America and in foreign countries.  We should fully consider the costs and benefits of the use of drones overseas, and whether we think it is prudent for the President to have the unilateral authority to authorize drones to kill suspected terrorists in other, sovereign nations with which we are not at war.  There is no doubt that the drones have been effective weapons in the fight against al Qaeda, but are they being used too frequently and too indiscriminately?  The strikes have injured and killed apparently innocent civilians and deeply damaged the United States’ reputation in several countries.  Is it worth it?  That’s not a question that the President, alone, should be answering.

Domestically, do we really want to give the President the power to order the killing of American citizens in the United States — without a judge or jury or a finding of guilt by any other entity or branch of government?  Reserving for the President the right to do so in “extraordinary circumstances” seems like an ill-defined limit on presidential power.  Supporters of President Obama might trust him to make wise decisions with such power, but what about the next President, and the President after that?  Presidential power runs with the office, not with its occupant.  Gradual accretions of presidential power never seem to get reversed, they just continue to accumulate and accumulate until the president seems less like a chief executive of a three-branch government and more like a tyrant.

I’m not ready to yield the power to the President to order drone strikes on American citizens on American soil just yet.  I hope Senator Paul’s old-fashioned, bladder-busting filibuster causes Congress, and the American public, to pay more attention to this important issue that addresses broad questions of individual liberty, due process, and how our government should work.