Despite political polarization and gridlock, the Senate vote proves that our institutions can adapt to the times.
In a move that could have major implications for President Obama’s second-term agenda, Senate Democrats Thursday lowered the 60-vote threshold required to confirm the President’s judicial and executive branch nominees. Majority Leader Harry Reid used to so-called nuclear option—or, as many are now calling it, the Reid rule—to change the rules with a simple majority of Senators. Fifty-two Democrats supported the change, just one more than the necessary 51-vote threshold. Democratic Senators Carl Levin (D-MI), Mark Begich (D-AK), and Mark Pryor (D-AR) all sided with the Republicans.
With legislative action at a standstill, the vote was a minor technical change with major consequences. The precipitating cause of the rule change was Republicans’ continued filibuster of three appointees to the D.C Circuit Court of Appeals. This alone would justify the tweak. Because of its location, the court is the second most powerful behind the Supreme Court, and will likely be the site of a Republican challenge to the President’s environmental regulations. Immediately after the rule change, Democrats voted to confirm one of the judges
But it will also have effects beyond the D.C. Circuit Court. For years, progressives have called for the ouster of Vincent Demarco, a Bush Administration holdover in charge of overseeing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. DeMarco has refused efforts to reduce mortgage principle and help underwater homeowners. But Republicans blocked his successor Rep. Mel Watt (D-NC)—the first time a sitting Member of Congress has been denied an executive branch post since before the Civil War.
Then there is the National Labor Relations Board—the chief federal arbitrator of disputes between workers and employers. After effectively shutting down the NLRB for the President’s first term, Senate Republicans allowed the appointments to go through in July under the threat of the nuclear option. But each board member is limited to a five year term. Without a permanent rule change, Republicans could continue to hold worker protections hostage to their demands.
Perhaps the greatest effect of today’s vote will not be the regulations that get enacted or judges who get seated, but the precedent it sets in Congress. By opening the door to procedural changes by a simple majority, the so-called Reid Rule allows the Senate to once again function as a majoritarian legislative body. It also proves that, despite political polarization and gridlock, our institutions can adapt to the times.