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What's Nuclear?

If there was ever proof that changing the name of something doesn't change what it is or how it's perceived, the Republicans should have gotten the message when replacing the term "private accounts" with "personal accounts" didn't change the public's view of Social Security privatization. Redefining the "nuclear option" to end Senate filibusters by majority vote as the "constitutional option," and insisting that "nuclear option" is the Democrats' term, or even that the term really applies to the Democrats' threat to shut down the Senate in the aftermath, won't change the facts either.
To me, there's a very simple way of looking at this: The Senate has its own judiciary, in effect. It's called the Parliamentarian. The Senate Parliamentarian and his deputies immerse themselves in the Senate's rules and precedents. It takes years of apprenticeship to sit in the Parliamentarian's chair. At least in the days when I worked in the Senate (which, I will note once again was only eight years ago though sometimes I feel like it might as well have been the days of Henry Clay and Thomas Hart Benton), the Parliamentarian was treated with absolute respect.

The parliamentarian will rule that the attempt to change the Senate rules by majority vote is out of order. Yes, that's according to Senator Reid a week ago (Parliamentarians, by their very nature, don't speak publicly about potential rulings), but there's nothing in this article that suggests that any Republicans think the Parliamentarian would do otherwise.

The Senate makes its own rules, of course, and it is the Senator sitting in the President's chair (or the Vice President) who makes such a ruling. He can ignore the Parliamentarian's advice about what the rules are. But to do so is the very definition of Nuclear. You can do it, in the way that you can hit the accelerator after you've been pulled over by a state trooper, right after the trooper's gotten out of his car. You can do it, in the way that DeLay's Texas allies can try to strip Travis County prosecutor Ronnie Earle of his power to indict corrupt officials. You can do it, if you never expect to need the protection of those same laws or police officers or judges or prosecutors for yourself.

That should be the basic standard: If you willfully defy the very person you have entrusted to interpret and enforce your rules, you have gone Nuclear.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on April 25, 2005 | Permalink


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Enclosed below is a link to a great video of Georgia Senator Johnny Isaacson (GOP) extolling the virtues of the filibuster.... pj


Posted by: peter jung | Apr 25, 2005 5:36:11 PM

I would like to hear any thoughts you might have on the role of deference to the majority in the Senate. First I ever heard of it, from these discussions about the filibuster.

Posted by: reader | Apr 25, 2005 11:20:51 PM

"The Hill" has an article on Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid's conversation with the Senate Parliamentarian, Alan Frumin, on this topic:


Posted by: Timothy | Apr 26, 2005 11:54:26 AM

As a moderate republican I am embarrassed that this is even being discussed. The democrats did not like the fillibuster in the 80s and early 90s and now the republicans don't like it. One thing they should have learned from the democrats is that you won't be the majority forever and if you get rid of this option it will be you who will be forced to accept judicial nominees you don't like next.

Posted by: Adam | May 6, 2005 9:14:35 PM

I suppose you're just writing rhetorically, but (besides common sense) the Hill story seems to argue against your suggestion that it doesn't matter what we call it. Reid suggests he was worried people didn't understand how "beyond the pale" the threatened option is, and this worry coincides with replacement or "ironicizing" of the label "nuclear" in the media. Surely you don't deny the toxic brilliance of "death tax."

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