21 November 2013

The Senate goes 'nuclear'

After years of threats from both parties, the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate has pushed through a rules change that eliminates the ability of a minority party to block confirmation votes on a wide range of executive-branch and judicial appointments while allowing the old rules to remain in effect for Supreme Court appointments. That exception is the majority's concession to the probability of a Republican takeover at some point; Democrats thus reserve their prerogative to filibuster against appointees of future Republican presidents. Some Republicans have responded to the vote and the exception made with a promise to end the exception when they regain control. That would be fair. Democrats have characterized Republican obstruction of appointments by the President as either fanatical or unprincipled; future Democratic obstruction of Supreme Court nominations will be seen  the same way. If today's vote is a victory for "small d" democracy, the exception makes that victory incomplete. The majority's right to govern through its representatives doesn't depend on the "importance" of a post to be filled. The President's democratic mandate is the same whether he's filling a Supreme Court vacancy or a vacancy on one of the lower courts. If Democrats are afraid of a Republican mandate to pack the Court with reactionaries, the remedy is to win presidential and senatorial elections. Faith in democracy cannot be conditioned by partisanship or a fear of partisanship. If you seek to thwart a democratic mandate at any time because they may get into power, then you're no better than the Republicans whose obstructionist tactics provoked today's vote. Democratic republicanism means that anyone who can win an election can and should be trusted to govern within constitutional bounds. If that trust doesn't exist, the democratic reform carried out today only raises the stakes of elections while reconciling no one to their results. It should still be hailed as a win for democracy, despite the predictable Republican cries of power grab, but you can always depend on "Capital D" Democrats to dampen our enthusiasm with half measures.

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