What next for Congressional bipartisanship?

11 Apr 2017

While most of the world’s attention was on US action in Syria and the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping, Washington went nuclear last Thursday and completely outlawed Senatorial filibustering.  


Realising that bipartisan eluded Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation, the Republican-dominated Senate decided to blow up 228 years of Senate history and lowered the threshold required for Supreme Court nominees, from 60 to 51.


Although the popular conception of filibustering is often negative, it had a crucial role in the American legislature, of encouraging bi-partisan support for presidential nominees. However, this latest change to the Senate’s rules could be the final nail in the coffin of that hallowed phrase; ‘bipartisanship.’ Not that this hasn’t been coming for quite some time.


In late 2013, the Senate’s Majority Leader Harry Reid (Democrat) told the Senate: "The American people believe Congress is broken. The American people believe the Senate is broken. And I believe they are right, it’s time to get the Senate working again.”


Fed up with Republican stalling over Chuck Hagel’s confirmation (Obama’s nominee for Defence Secretary), and inaction over numerous federal court and executive branch nominees, Reid pushed through a controversial change to Senate procedure known as the ‘nuclear option’.


Whereas filibustering had forced the opposing parties to reach some form of agreement, lowering the number of votes required to confirm a presidential nomination effectively removed the need for them to even work together. So long as a party has a majority, they can be assured of a confirmation.


In 2014, following a disastrous mid-term, the Democrats lost nine seats, the Republican Party took the Senate and a long-term staple of Senatorial law-making was irrevocably lost for the sake of confirming a couple of nominees to the National Labor Relations Board.


This had been applied to all nominations, save Supreme Court, but removing the power to filibuster nominees set the Senate on a slippery slope that culminated in events last week.

The lifetime tenure of its justices, coupled with its political power over numerous facets of American life; abortion, gay rights, gun rights, and even deciding the result of an election, means it’s important that its nominees should be in some way competent. Political cronyism has no place on the highest court in the land. But the issue with reducing the threshold from 60 votes to 51, and removing the right to filibuster, is that it opens the door to partisan or political appointments.


Nine votes might not seem like that many in a room full of 100 people, but in 2009 President Obama’s first Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, required nine Republicans to get over the 60-vote threshold. Removing the need for broad, bipartisan support only increases the chance that ideologically extreme or politicised candidates are put forward.

Years of Congressional gerrymandering and redistricting pretty much killed bipartisanship in the House of Representatives. The Senate was meant to be the rejoinder to this, the 60-vote threshold required from legislation to Supreme Court nominees encouraged deal-making. But the unprecedented obstructionism that occurred during Obama’s presidency led the Senate down a slippery slope.


The row over the Gorsuch nomination proved what most of us knew already, bipartisanship is dead. The Senate might have made a deal and settled on a justice both parties (and by proxy voters) found palatable. But that brand of politics is dead and gone in Washington. Bipartisanism is dead, long live bipartisanism.  


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