- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 15, 2005

A political mushroom-shaped cloud could soon envelop Congress if the controlling Republican majority in the Senate exercises the so-called nuclear option to end the tradition of extended debate. The risk is a massive chain reaction that will create a political nuclear winter for Congress and the conduct of the nation’s business. The trigger is gridlock over a handful of the administration’s judicial nominees opposed by Democrats. But the underlying reason is power and, in the poisonously partisan atmosphere in Washington, the opportunity for one party to dominate the other.

Pushed by the White House, Republicans could put the Senate on a majority-rule footing. Unlike the House of Representatives, the Senate operates on the basis of extended debate, including the famous filibuster and the right of the minority to exercise that procedure. To end a filibuster, “cloture” of a “super majority” of 60 votes was needed, or, if the full Senate was in session, 67 votes was needed. Today, the Republicans control 55 seats, five short of invoking cloture. Through Rule 62, the majority can call for a parliamentary ruling by the Senate’s president, Vice President Dick Cheney, on the constitutionality of this procedure. Mr. Cheney can change the rule to a simple majority vote.

The conventional political deterrent to the nuclear option is the threat of closing the Senate down. But if simple majority vote prevailed, would Republicans need any Democrats to keep the Senate working? Of course, little is that simple in Washington.

The greatest political fear is that with one party fully controlling all three houses of government, the minority would have no representation and this republic would be transformed into a de facto parliamentary system. Here, two observations are relevant. First, when Franklin Roosevelt was president, he enjoyed huge majorities in both houses. But he was unable to get some of his most important legislation passed, nor could he “pack” the Supreme Court. And the Senate’s rejection, so far, of President Bush’s plans for Social Security is relevant.

But, second, would a parliamentary-like government based on majority rule be more relevant to the world of the 21st century that is instantly connected, incredibly complex, overly regulated and filled with new dangers that defy conventional solutions and that may finally have outgrown the capacity of a political system designed by the best minds of the 18th century to work effectively?

With issues spanning the war on terror, imposing peace in the Middle East through democratization, reforming Social Security and the tax code, attempting to balance the budget and provide for future domestic liabilities that extend into the tens of trillions of dollars, perhaps a parliamentary type of government based on strict majority rule now makes better sense. Hence, in that context, the nuclear option could prove to be in the nation’s long-term interest. In the short term, however, the consequences would be radioactive and already bitter partisan politics would become even more bitter.

Republicans would move to fill the bench with judges of a conservative bent. Reversal of Roe v. Wade, strengthening of domestic security laws to protect against terror and other movement to the “right” would no doubt follow. Given near-absolute control by the majority that seals off legislative prerogatives, civil disobedience by the minority to close down government through obstructing the work of Congress could result. Congress would become a spectacle.

While many Americans might consider this favorably for a short time, finding any resolution to this pending explosion will not happen easily. Avoidance of the nuclear option is the most prudent path through some form of compromise. And hidden from public view like the proverbial crazy relative in the closet is that Congress, along with the rest of government, is simply not organized to deal with many issues and challenges before it. Reform is not only overdue, it is essential. Yet, there is no constituency for reform in Congress and the public remains disengaged.

Should Congress shut down, then the president and executive branch will become the de facto government without any check or balance. But how long would the public tolerate unicameral government, even if the White House proves to be more effective at the job than the current system? Nothing less than the political future of the nation could be at stake. And whatever political debate and fallout over invoking the nuclear option occur, both are likely to favor the lowest common denominator, meaning that these greater consequences will be ignored or dismissed.

So, should Republicans take the risk, throw the dice and let the Senate go nuclear? Or should we the people use this pending cataclysm to force our elected leaders to address these serious questions seriously? The answer is obvious. What will happen is not.

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