Seven years ago, when the Democrats in the U.S. Senate filibustered several of President George W. Bush’s judicial nominees, Republicans floated the idea of using a parliamentary maneuver to confirm them by a simple 51-vote majority. It was called the “nuclear option,” because of its power to cause havoc.
Republicans were frustrated. “The Senate has a constitutional responsibility to vote on nominees,” the White House said, adding that the process had become “worse than it’s ever been before.” Minority leader Tom Daschle (D–S.D.) denied that this was so. “If it ain’t broke,” he said of the Senate’s 60-vote rule, “don’t fix it.” Sen. Charles Schumer (D–N.Y.) agreed, placing the blame for the impasse on the President: “When the White House wants to show some degree of moderation, the system works well,” he said.
On May 27, 2003, the New York Times warned of the damage that would be caused to democratic legitimacy by such a change:
Fast forward seven years. What the Republicans either lacked the political audacity or showed the political diffidence not to do (depending upon your opinion of them), the Democrats under Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Barack Obama have now done, passing a deeply unpopular “health care” scheme by changing the rules to do so. Megan McArdle of the Atlantic writes:
But the point is that, in Sen. Schumer’s words, the system worked well. The American public made itself heard through opinion polls, meetings, marches, petitions, and three elections in which Republicans handily defeated their Democratic rivals, in one case—the special election in Massachusetts to fill the term of the late Edward M. Kennedy—in which the Republican candidate explicitly campaigned to become the senator who would deny the Democrats sixty votes for “Obamacare.”
And as McArdle says, in the end none of it made any difference. Instead of showing “some degree of moderation,” the White House went nuclear. And whatever the harms that will be caused by “Obamacare”—the Wall Street Journal is particularly good on that question this morning—they will shrink to nothing, I fear, in comparison to the damage that was done last night to our democracy.