As the debate over filibuster reform has intensified, many of the Republican objections have focused less on the specific changes, and more on how Democrats intend to approve those changes. If the majority passes reforms by majority rule, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) argues, it will be an outrageous assault.
He said the exact opposite when Republicans were in the majority.
It’s easy to forget, but seven years ago, Senate Republicans, mid-way through the 104th Congress, came up with a plan they called the “nuclear option” (later rebranded as the “constitutional option”) which would have changed Senate rules by majority vote and eliminated the right of the minority to filibuster judicial nominees. Senate Republicans even prepared a detailed historical analysis defending the move, which, curiously, recently disappeared from its online home.
Of course, at this point, Republican readers of Maddow Blog are shouting, “At the time, Democrats like Harry Reid condemned the procedure that they’re now prepared to use!” And those Republican complaints are entirely correct – when McConnell wanted to go “nuclear” in 2005, Reid called it “un-American.”
As Alex Seitz-Wald explained very well this week, when it comes to filibuster reform and Senate rules, there’s “plenty of hypocrisy to go around.” When a party finds itself in the majority, it’s outraged by the minority’s obstructionism and in a fit of frustration, considers sweeping changes. When a party finds itself below the 50-vote threshold, minority rights are paramount
The talking points are practically syllable-for-syllable the same, with folks like McConnell and Reid effectively trading scripts depending on which caucus is in control at the time. Partisans don’t like to admit it, but YouTube clips like the one above are hard to explain away.
And while the “both sides are being hypocritical” observation is fine, as far as it goes, this shouldn’t be the end of the conversation. Indeed, it can’t be.
For one thing, no matter which side of the aisle you’re inclined to blame or favor, the status quo is untenable. The Senate wasn’t designed to work this way; it didn’t use to work this way; and it quite obviously can’t work this way. The nation needs the Senate to be able to function, and right now, the vast majority of the time, it doesn’t.
For another, as an objective, quantifiable matter, Republican obstructionism is much more offensive than anything Americans have ever seen. We can compare rhetoric, and shake our heads in disappointment when we see McConnell and Reid saying the polar opposite of what they’re saying now, but the hypocrisy comes with an asterisk – this isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison.
To be sure, Democrats blocked plenty of bills from receiving up-or-down votes and did the same to plenty of far-right judicial nominees from the Bush/Cheney White House. But the conditions that have existed in recent years have no precedent in American history – the Senate minority has effectively changed the rules of the institution itself, creating a mandatory supermajority for everything, making governing nearly impossible.
These conditions have never existed before, so when we scrutinize partisans’ rhetoric from years’ past, the context matters a great deal when considering responsibility and credibility.