Democrats Nuked the Senate’s Reputation

The former Wyoming senator on why a Senate with less 'politics' is a terrible thing

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill on November 21, 2013 in Washington, DC after the Senate voted 52-48 to invoke the so-called "nuclear option".

I often felt so frustrated that a President’s judicial appointments should face such a long and tedious road to confirmation in the Senate. But it is vastly more frustrating that now by further limiting the minority party’s influence in judging presidential nominees, the Democrat-controlled Senate has ramped up partisanship and diminished—even further if possible—the public’s view of the “Upper House.”

Reducing the minority party’s power through rules changes that allow approval of nominees by a simple majority vote effectively removes minority party members from the process. Worse, if this crude blade-thrust of partisanship should be expanded, Senate function might soon echo the House of Representatives, where partisanship has become so nasty and extreme that it throttles any thoughtful consideration by members on the key issues affecting our nation.

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The solution to excessive partisanship isn’t to push for more of it. This dramatic step takes the Senate a long stride away from the thoughtful institution it was intended to be, where even a minority of one could sometimes really matter.

Those who seek to justify this rules change argue that it’s necessary because the evil Senate Republican minority is wholly obstructionist, and that raw partisan politics have made this necessary. But the filibuster is actually a check on partisan politics. The House has always been much more partisan and the majority rules there—because they have no similar Senate barrier to action by the majority. The two parties in the present House usually vote as a bloc and rarely cooperate across the aisle. If the Senate continues to go down this perilous road of restricting the minority’s participation in the process, it won’t be putting an end to partisanship, it will only be furthering it. This new path gives the majority more raw power and less reason to even consider the views of the minority. That means that minds will be even more closed to competing perspectives, which they are then free to ignore.

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The spectacularly-botched Affordable Care Act is messed up precisely because the President and the Democrats exploited any and all congressional procedures to ram it through over the strong opposition of the minority, using special budget reconciliation procedures that prevented the minority from amending the legislation. Now, three years later, the public is sadly finding out that the valid concerns of the minority were absolutely right all along—that many people would really lose their previous health coverage under the law, and that the financing mechanisms underlying the law would swiftly unravel, which they have already begun to do. Had there been some honest effort to incorporate the views of those across the aisle, the ACA might not have been so badly screwed up. Instead we now have a law that is a complete mess, with one side determined to kill it, and the other side determined to implement it without alteration despite all evidence of its massive problems.

It’s because of this arrogance and hubris of ignoring the minority that we now have a law with no bipartisan investment in even trying to fix the damn thing and making it work. To prevent similar outcomes in the future, we need more bipartisan cooperation, not more partisan bullying.

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When I was a member of the Senate, some would always complain about the “politics” that were slowing down the Senate confirmation process. I would say to them, “If you don’t like politics, move to a country where they don’t have any.” That is so true. So some members don’t like the contentious politics surrounding nominees being held up; it’s ugly. But now they’re about to see what happens when that brake is removed—and when they are on “the other side” they will see what happens when those in power don’t have to worry about political opposition. Hang on tight!

Alan K. Simpson is a former U.S. Senator from Wyoming.