Polarized US legislature halts progress
Following a lengthy political battle between Democrats and Republicans in the Senate, Neil Gorsuch was confirmed as the 113th Supreme Court justice on April 7. This confirmation is of particular significance to President Donald Trump, as it is one of the more important campaign promises he made and fulfilled. It is a decision that will give the Republicans more power where they were the minority for years.
The replacement of former justice Antonin Scalia with a Republican who is like him ideologically will garner more support among Trump’s supporters, who will come to believe that he is a politician who can deliver on his promises. Gorsuch’s confirmation gives the Republicans a lasting legacy. Given that Gorsuch is currently 49 years old, he could serve on the Supreme Court for a period of 30 years or more, acting as a bulwark against the more liberal judges currently serving.
Some of the events that took place in the process of confirming Gorsuch were never put into practice before, marking a historical turning point in the Senate’s dealings with Supreme Court nominations. After Democrats attempted to filibuster Gorsuch, Republicans deployed the so called “nuclear option,” in which the requirement of 60 votes to advance Supreme Court nominations was reduced to a majority of votes.
The use of the nuclear option is further proof of the increasingly encroaching power of the Republicans. They have completely changed how the Senate deals with one of its most important duties—the confirmation of Supreme Court judges—and further reduced the power of the minority party.
To advance Gorsuch’s nomination, the Republicans needed 60 votes. However, they only had a 52-vote majority and needed at least eight Democrats or independent defectors to end debate and proceed to the final vote. They ended up with less than 60 votes, so the Republicans had to choose between letting the nominee fail or sidestepping Senate tradition by employing the nuclear option.
Republicans argued that they had no choice but to change the rules by invoking the nuclear option because the Democrats had ignored normal Senate procedure with the first successful partisan filibuster of a Supreme Court nominee. They claimed that letting the filibuster stand was more problematic than overriding Senate rules to overturn the Democratic filibuster.
On the other hand, the Democrats claim that they were motivated to filibuster Gorsuch because of the Republicans’ prior treatment of Merrick Garland, former president Barack Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court. Democrats blame Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader of the Senate, and his colleagues for refusing to even consider Garland.
After Scalia’s death, McConnell announced that there would be no votes, hearings or action on any Supreme Court nomination until the U.S. public cast their vote for a new president. The Republicans did this because they had favorable choices either way. If Trump would win the presidency, he would fill the vacancy instead of Obama. If Clinton would win and Democrats retook control of the Senate, the Republicans could delay Garland’s confirmation. It would work out for the Republicans either way. Garland was ignored by the Senate for 293 days, the longest nomination process in the history of the Supreme Court.
Besides getting payback for Garland, Democrats also enacted the filibuster because they were concerned about Gorsuch’s prior record and how it would affect his rulings on the Supreme Court. The filibuster was also popular among more progressive voters, who oppose anything attempted by Trump, simply because of who he is as a person.
However, the filibuster did not work out in the end. Democrats will now have to deal with a reliably conservative justice who is relatively young and can serve for a long time. The nuclear option being on the table removes the power to filibuster nominees for vacancies, as either party that wants to surpass the other party’s filibuster now has a means of doing so quickly.
Congress used to be relatively bipartisan with Supreme Court matters, but as the House and Senate become largely more partisan, the Supreme Court will come to reflect that. With the nuclear option now useable by both sides, the Court will probably face large changes in its makeup, as moderate judges are replaced by left-leaning and right-leaning judges.
The strife and hostility between U.S. political parties is increasing. Moderate legislators and politicians are being replaced with ideologues who are more concerned with governing according to their own ideals than the ideals of their constituents. As U.S. politics becomes less bipartisan, the future for the government looks dismal.