For centuries, the U.S. Senate has been referred to by many as the world’s greatest deliberative body. In recent years, that has become more of a sardonic reprise than anything else. At the nation’s inception, the Senate was designed to be a legislative chamber free from the parochial, knee-jerk instincts found in the House of Representatives. The importance of formal Senate rules in maintaining that order cannot be overstated, and among the most central of those is Rule XXII, governing the use of the filibuster.
Filibustering gets a bad rap. At face value, it seems silly. To most onlookers, allowing indefinite debate on a motion is a waste of time — to them, it’s everything that’s wrong with Congress. For decades, centuries even, congressional hams have exploited filibustering as a tool for political theatre. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) are modern masters of this, holding the floor for upwards of 20 hours with antic-laden speeches. In 2013, Cruz read excerpts from Green Eggs and Ham in an attempt to delay a vote on healthcare reform.
Those are the filibusters that get all the popular press coverage, but they aren’t representative cases. In common practice, the filibuster is simply a parliamentary maneuver that establishes a 60-vote requirement to end debate on a measure. That elevated threshold forces compromise — the bill or nominee at hand will never pass the floor without some modicum of support from the minority party. In line with the Senate’s original purpose, that leads to more stable, sustainable legislation. It’s not sexy; it’s not exciting, but it is a profoundly important feature of the chamber. It’s also dying a slow, excruciating death.
The past two Senate majority leaders have taken a page out of Attila the Hun’s playbook, tearing the filibuster apart limb by limb. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell triggered the “nuclear option” April 6 in response to a Democratic filibuster of Judge Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Senate Republicans voted to unilaterally change the rules of the chamber, lowering the threshold from 60 to 51 to break a filibuster of a Supreme Court nominee.
I have made my thoughts on McConnell clear in the past — he is a cold, calculating opportunist without one iota of shame. He knew precisely what the implications of going nuclear were, but the most damning thing of all? He didn’t care. That will have a striking impact on the Senate’s deliberative potential, and while that one change alone will not necessarily transform the chamber as we know it, it’s part of a larger pattern of behavior that eventually will.
The first major blow was dealt in 2013 by former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) following years of bitter partisan politicking around former President Barack Obama’s executive and judicial nominees. The insurgent tactics used at the time were truly unprecedented. In all of Congressional history prior to 2008, 68 nominees had been blocked by filibuster. Under McConnell’s stint as the head of the Senate GOP during the Obama years, 79 nominees suffered the same fate. In turn, Reid triggered the nuclear option, killing the filibuster for all non-Supreme Court nominees. The silver lining in our evolving national peril is that we’ve at least found something that both parties can agree on — the rules of the game don’t apply to them when they’re in power. The vast majority of sitting members of the Senate — both Democrats and Republicans — have somehow been complicit in this decay.
From a mushroom cloud of this magnitude comes a nuclear winter. The ramifications for both the Supreme Court and the Senate are considerable. We can expect more ideologically-charged nominees from both the left and right in times where a party has unified control of the executive and legislative branches. No longer is there any incentive for negotiation with the minority party, bringing about the end of a long history of consensus on Supreme Court nominees. From here on out, we risk changing the character of the Supreme Court forever. There’s no denying that we’ve been heading in that direction for decades, and one would have to be a fool to think that justices lack ideological motivations. However, the Senate paved the way for ineliminable change, ushering in a new era of judicial extremism with open arms. For the Senate, this means more bad blood, more partisan rancor and an increased possibility that no Supreme Court nominees will be confirmed in times of split government control. Staying the current course, I fear that the legislative filibuster is next to go.
Though 61 Senators signed a letter signaling opposition to doing away with the ability to filibuster bills, the precedent to pull the trigger has already been set twice. This final blow against the filibuster would be catastrophic, carrying with it immense implications for legislative continuity. A party holding a simple majority would be able to act unilaterally on anything — major legal provisions would be subject to change with small electoral gains and losses every two to four years, something that a highly-inert bureaucratic structure simply cannot accommodate. Ultimately, without procedures to encourage extended deliberation, the Senate is little more than a smaller, more elite version of the House, which raises questions about the relevance of bicameralism moving forward.
While the backbone of Congress continues to bend to the point of paraplegia, find joy in this irony: the relentless crusade to seat a constitutional originalist on the Supreme Court was the next step in the systematic destruction of the Senate’s original purpose.
Matthew Ribel is a College sophomore from Chantilly, Va.