In March 2005, Senator Harry Reid, the leader of the Democratic Party’s then-minority in the Senate, engaged in some legislative brinkmanship. If the Republicans went through with a dastardly plan they had devised, he warned, “the majority should not expect to receive cooperation from the minority in the conduct of Senate business … even on routine matters.” Senator Ted Kennedy hailed Reid’s stand and called on Republicans to “obey the rule of law and abandon their reckless threat to use the ‘nuclear option.’”
What was the outrageous threat that Democrats were so eager to block? Some nefarious Patriot Act provision? A bill authorizing torture, or secret surveillance? No. The Republicans, as you may recall, wanted to change the Senate rules to prevent Democrats from blocking judicial nominees by using the filibuster, a parliamentary procedure in which a minority of senators can endlessly extend debate to prevent an issue from being voted on. Eventually, a group of legislators known as the “Gang of 14”—seven Democrats and seven Republicans—struck a deal on the nominations, thus saving the filibuster and forestalling any changes to the Senate rules, and the dispute ended.
But Democrats were right to look on the nuclear option skeptically, and not because the proposed change was “reckless.” Rather, it didn’t go far enough. Every word the Republicans said about the nominees’ deserving an up-or-down vote was perfectly true—and their argument applies not just to judicial nominees, but to every other case in which the filibuster subverts the will of the majority.
Democrats no doubt see that more clearly today. Since 2006, when they won majorities in both the House and the Senate, their approval ratings have plummeted, in large part because moderates and liberals have noticed their inability to get much of anything done. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tried to blame “the obstructionism of the Republicans,” but realistically, one can hardly blame Senate Republicans for obstructing legislation they oppose. The fault lies not with the obstructionists, but with the procedural rule that facilitates obstruction. In short, with the filibuster—a dubious tradition that encourages senators to act as spoilers rather than legislators, and that has locked the political system into semipermanent paralysis by ensuring that important decisions are endlessly deferred. It should be done away with.
Back in 2005, Senate Democrats seeking to block the GOP majority portrayed the filibuster as a pillar of America’s democratic tradition. In fact, it’s no such thing. The original rules of the Senate allowed a simple majority of legislators to make a motion to end debate. In 1806, at the recommendation of Aaron Burr, those rules were amended to allow for unlimited argument—not to create a countermajoritarian check on legislation, but because the motion had been so rarely invoked that it “could not be necessary.” This decision paved the way for the modern filibuster. But no one actually attempted to use it until 1837, when a minority block of Whig senators prolonged debate to prevent Andrew Jackson’s allies from expunging a resolution of censure against him. The unlimited-debate rule eventually became so cumbersome that senators made attempts at reform in 1850, 1873, 1883, and 1890, all unsuccessful. Finally, in 1917, the Senate adopted a rule allowing a two-thirds supermajority to cut off debate.