Thursday, May 12, 2005

nuclear MADness

salon has a good primer (get a day pass) explaining exactly what a filibuster is and how the "nuclear option" would work. for all the talk about the "nuclear option" and the "end of the filibuster" there has been very little details of what specifically those things are.

one thing the salon article does not address is the full meaning of the term "nuclear option." my impression was that the term was coined, not just because ending the filibuster would be "explosive," but to evoke the cold-war doctrine of Mutually Assured Distruction.

the senate rules have evolved to extend certain privileges to the minority party members and, in return, the minority members avoid using every tactic that they could use to tie up senate business. if the filibuster is eliminated, all bets are off on those other tactics and all business in the senate could well grind to a halt.

want an example? in march i argued that the schiavo bill was unconstitutional because it was passed with only three senator present despite the constitution's quorum requirements. in the ensuing discussions i learned that most statutes, in fact, are passed without a quorum. it's just that under senate rules, no one checks to see if there is a quorum unless a member asks for a quorum call. any member can ask for a quorum call, but they don't because the senate rarely has a quorum (try watching c-span sometime and count the number of people in the room). for most votes, we all know what the result will be and the senators generally have other places to be--visiting constituents, cutting ribbons on hospitals, being wined and dined by lobbyists, etc. so as a matter of courtesy, no one asks for a quorum call even when it is obvious that the senate really should not be in session. it's because of this tacit understanding that senate business gets done.

if the republicans eliminate the filibuster the democrats could easily retaliate using the quorum call. even if the democratic leadership does not approve of the practice, it only takes a single maverick democrat to demand a quorum count every time the senate is in session, or, for that matter, anytime anyone leaves the room. most of the time, the chamber will not have a quorum and senate business will grind to a halt. that is, until enough absent members can be flown in to bring the total number of senators (including the vice president) up to 51.

but for each republican who enters, a democrat could leave. unless almost every republican senator is confined to washington, a quorum could not be assured and nothing would get done. and while republicans are stuck in washington to assure a quorum, they wouldn't be able to campaign or meet with donors. provided they have a skeleton crew in washington to demand a quorum call if necessary, democrats' activities would not be so limited.

that's just one way that the democrats could play hardball if the filibuster is eliminated. there are plenty of other ways to throw a monkey-wrench in the process. that's why it's considered to be so explosive. once the time-honored practices of the chambers are chucked out the window, the democrats can use many other tactics to virtually shut the place down.

the republicans keep telling their supporters that a filibuster is all that stands in the way of bush's blocked judicial nominees. but if the filibuster is eliminated, there's good reason to believe even fewer bush nominees will come to a vote in the senate. indeed, the democrats could make sure no business takes place there at all.

that's assuming, of course, that the dems are willing to play hardball. they certainly have displayed a lack of spine before. i could easily imagine them crumbling now. and there is a misconception that, just as the 1995 federal government shutdown was a political disaster for the republicans, so would a shutdown of the senate be seen as a political liability for the democrats. but as others have noted, shutting down the entire federal government is quite different from shutting down the senate. when the federal government shuts down, services people depend upon stop. if the senate shuts down, it will have no effect on anyone's life outside of washington.

besides, part of the reason the 1995 shutdown turned into such a boondoggle for the republicans is that the 1994 congress was elected after telling the american people that they did not need the federal government. the shutdown reminded the public how much they missed federal services, which undermined the popularity of the republican's message. there's no parallel if the democrats shut down the senate. in fact, if polls are right, most of the country would applaud if bush's social security proposal could not go anywhere because the senate was unable to operate.

(salon link via the liberal avenger)