The Senate’s phony 60-vote threshold

 

The Washington Post

Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., engaged in a long argument on the Senate floor Thursday morning over Republican obstruction and Democratic plans to do something about it.

In practical terms, this is a game of chicken. Republicans — the minority party — want to block as many presidential nominees as possible. Senate rules allow that. The only real weapon Democrats have is to threaten to change Senate rules so that simple majorities can confirm those nominations. This is a weapon Democrats are reluctant to use, and it remains unclear at what point they will decide there is too much obstruction and act. And so Republicans will keep pushing right up to where they think the line is, while Democrats threaten to go nuclear any minute.

That’s OK, as far as it goes.

But on the merits, McConnell gave away the game twice during the debate. At one point he referred to a “60-vote hurdle” and later talked about how few nominees are “likely to have problems getting cloture.”

That’s the problem, right there. Since January 2009, McConnell has treated filibusters as routine and universal. That’s brand-new. Executive-branch nominees had been filibustered before but only in rare cases. Almost all the time, under all previous presidents, executive-branch nominees didn’t have to get cloture; they needed to get only a simple majority.

This is how it should be. There are reasonable justifications — agree with them or not — for supermajority requirements on at least some legislation and some lifetime-appointment judgeships. I’m not aware of any good arguments for needing 60 votes on any executive-branch nominations, let alone making that the standard for all of those selections. For years, everyone has believed that presidents should basically be entitled to the personnel they want and that the confirmation process was basically an opportunity for senators to have some leverage over what happens in the departments and agencies, after which nominees would normally be confirmed. This system worked reasonably well, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be the system now, even if Democrats have to change the formal rules to restore how things used to work.

What’s happening now is simply about how far Democrats are willing to go to accommodate what is absolutely unprecedented obstruction of executive-branch nominations without invoking their right to impose a rules change.

On the merits, however, McConnell is dead wrong. He spoke Thursday about whether Reid would ruin the Senate by going nuclear, but the ones who are actually threatening ruin are Republicans who insist on a 60-vote Senate and, more generally, Republicans who constantly defy Senate norms to gain short-term advantage.

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics.

Special to The Washington Post

Read more From Our Inbox stories from the Miami Herald

  • A battle ahead on ‘personhood’

    Some of the most hard-fought Senate races this fall are likely to feature big fights over “personhood.”

  • The Cuba embargo is such a bad idea

    On a drive across Cuba a few weeks ago, my family and I decided to make a quick detour to the Bay of Pigs. It was hot, and the beach at Playa Giron — where 53 years ago a tragicomic CIA-sponsored invasion force stormed ashore — seemed like a good place for lunch. Plus, who could pass up the opportunity to swim in the Bay of Pigs? I would swim in the Gulf of Tonkin for the same reason.

  • A deadly decade for environmentalists

    According to a report released this week by the London-based NGO Global Witness, at least 908 environmental activists have been killed over the last decade. That number is comparable to the 913 journalists killed in the course of their work in the same period and is likely on the low side — reporting is inconsistent in many countries and full data for 2013 hasn’t yet been collected. 2012 was deadliest year ever for environmentalists with 147 killed.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category