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.
Although 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?