Bob Franken: Nuclear matters

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Let’s face it — too much of the coverage we provide from Washington is “inside baseball,” easily ignored by those who live in the real world. Sometimes, though, this stuff matters. A case in point is the decision by Harry Reid and his Democratic gaggle to invoke the “nuclear option.” It’s called that because Reid and his partisan majority blew up the traditional filibuster. Utilizing a parliamentary maneuver, they were able to circumvent the usual two-thirds vote necessary to change the rules and used a simple majority to do away with the biggest delaying tactic that has helped define the “deliberative” United States Senate.

Republicans are having a cow. “You’ll regret this,” sputtered Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. “The solution to this problem is at the ballot box.” He was trying to make the obvious point that if the R’s take over, it’s the D’s who will have lost their power to stop a conservative agenda. Unwittingly, however, McConnell was offering a justification for doing away with a stalling tactic that he and his partisans were using to thwart the winner of the last election. The voters choose who will head the nation. Last time around, that was Barack Obama, meaning he gets to select the ones to fill openings on the federal bench, and also who will head the departments and agencies of his administration.

Forgive the civics refresher, but while the Constitution’s advise-and-consent power provides the Senate an ability to block nominees, it is supposed to be used sparingly. The key word is “consent,” but at an unprecedented level, the Republicans were filibustering judicial and executive appointments put forth by President Obama. It came to a head when they blocked three of his choices to fill appeals-court openings. The Republicans were daring Reid to make the nuclear move — in truth, they triple-dared him – so he did.

Actually, it wasn’t a complete filibuster wipeout. There is an exception for the Supreme Court nominees, and it still can be deployed to shut down legislation. That brought some criticism from those who believe that the GOP agenda is all about obstruction. If Barack Obama asked Congress to approve a Happy Thanksgiving resolution, it would be filibustered in the upper chamber.

Republicans vow revenge. They have plenty of tools for continuing the gridlock. The Senate rules are packed with delaying tactics. So they can retaliate against the nuclear option with the death of a thousand cuts. The budget deals that need to be done, for instance, can be sunk if they simply refuse to negotiate. Depending on how vindictive they choose to be, we could be facing another government shutdown or debt-ceiling crisis. If you’re wondering just what all this has to do with running the country, the answer is nothing.

Those on the right point out that when they’ve held the power, the liberals have also embraced procedural blockades. But the Republicans have reached new highs. Or would it be lows? In the ugly world of politics, things rarely improve — they get worse.

Inside baseball? Yes, it is, but the game affects all of us. If the legislative branch can substitute political pettiness for law making, we will continue to deteriorate. That’s not what a democracy is supposed to be.

© 2013 Bob Franken. Distributed by King Features Synd.