After years of timidity, the Senate suddenly used the ‘nuclear option’ and amended its rules to kill the filibuster for all nominations other than Supreme Court Justices.
The Republicans — whose pledge to block any appointee to the D.C. Circuit no matter how qualified is what brought on this sudden shift — promised retaliation when they were next in the majority.
The Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Grassley promised they’d abolish the filibuster for Justices too.
Meanwhile Sen. Carl Levin, one of the three Democrats to vote to keep the filibuster as it was, warned that the principle set in this vote could just as easily be applied to legislation as to nominations, so that this meant the end of the Senate as we know it.
From a strict matter of procedural nicety, I would have preferred a vote to amend the Senate rules be taken at the first meeting of the Senate in a session, rather than mid-session. Even though the Senate sees itself as a continuing body, there seems to me to be no serious argument that the rules cannot be changed by majority vote at the start of the two-year session. There is and was a credible argument that once the rules were in place, a change to the filibuster rule could be filibustered; as I understand it the Senate voted to overrule the Chair on that point, which is an option under its rules of procedure. And that was that.
One thing I definitely believe: Art. I, sec. 5 of the Constitution states that “Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceeding”; I do not think that this decision, whatever one thinks of it, is or should be reviewable in court. I imagine there will be a challenge, say by some party unhappy with a ruling by a judge confirmed under the new rules, but I confidently predict that it will lose.
Is the death of the filibuster good for us? In the short term, given how it was being routinely abused, yes. In the long term, it is harder to say. On the plus side, it makes the Senate a little less undemocratic; with the filibuster a rump of 41 senators representing under a third1 of the population. On what may well be the minus side, it also makes a President with a majority in the Senate significantly more powerful; and it makes a President with even a bare majority in both houses very much more powerful, maybe too powerful. That is emphatically not the situation today, but things change.
Update: It seems I’m consistent: Back in 2005 I chose not to sign a lawprof’s letter opposing the ‘nuclear option’. That time it was Republicans threatening to use the ‘nuclear option’ against Democrats.
- Update2: It seems I forgot just how bad it is. According to Dylan Matthews,
If senators representing 17.82 percent of the population agree, they can get a majority in the 2013 U.S. Senate. That’s not the lowest that figure has gotten (it hit about 16.8 percent in 1970) but it’s about there. And this doesn’t even take the filibuster into account. The smallest 20 states amount to 11.27 percent of the U.S. population, but if all of their senators band together they can successfully filibuster legislation. of the population could block nominations.