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UNL Expert Alert: New filibuster rule “a big change”

Thursday, November 21st, 2013

U.S. Sen. Harry Reid invoked “the nuclear option” and the Senate voted to eliminate the filibuster in confirmation votes for most presidential appointees.

Is it the end of the world as we know it?

Probably not, says John Hibbing, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln political scientist.

Here are some of his thoughts:

  • The long-term impact depends on how the American people react: “On the one hand, it sounds bad not to be able to do things on a majority vote.  On the other hand, (the rules change) is a clear violation of the normal pattern of behavior in the Senate.”
  • “The country probably can withstand a policy of approving judicial and executive nominations with a simple majority vote of the U.S. Senate, instead of the 60 votes required to end a filibuster.”
  • Still, “It is a big change – and it’s not going to do anything to smooth ruffled partisan feathers.”
  • “The interpretation rises and falls by the extent to which you believe the filibuster has gotten out of hand.”

Historically, the filibuster was used sparingly, as a protection of minority rights.  In recent years, filibusters have become more frequent, to the point that some believe they block government function. The latest battle came in the nomination of corporate lawyer Patricia Millett to a seat on the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals.  The Republican minority opposed her confirmation because it could tip the philosophical balance of the appellate court, which reviews many federal regulations and has served as a training ground for future U.S. Supreme Court Justices.  Thursday’s filibuster-ending vote cleared the way for her confirmation, likely next month.

Hibbing says he thinks filibustering probably had gotten out of hand.

The change applies to confirmations of the president’s judicial and executive appointtees, though it does not apply to U.S. Supreme Court nominations.

“There was too much obstruction on the executive branch level,” he said. “You lost the election. Let the president get his people in there. If they screw up, then vote them out.”

Hibbing also said he expects partisan payback for the rule change, particularly if the Democratic Party loses its Senate majority.

“The Republicans are probably right – the Democrats will come to regret this. That doesn’t mean it was the wrong thing to do,” he said.

CONTACT:  John Hibbing, Foundation Regents Professor of  Political Science, at 402-472-3220 (office);  402- 817-9623 (cell) or jhibbing1@unl.edu.