May 14, 2013 - 5:17pm

Unions Forgetful on Filibusters

Senior Vice President, Employment Policy Division



The Hill newspaper recently reported on a meeting between union officials and 25 Democratic Senators at which the so-called “nuclear option” was discussed.  The nuclear option refers to using a simple majority of 51 senators to change Senate rules to prevent filibusters. According to the article, use of the nuclear option with regard to nominations is under serious consideration.

Breaking a filibuster under current rules requires 60 votes.  It is the ability to compel a 60-vote threshold that preserves some degree of power for the minority party and prevents the Senate from functioning just like the House of Representatives — which many consider an important part of the checks and balances embedded in our form of government. 

Filibusters can be frustrating for the majority party in the Senate, currently Democrats, and there has been much griping of late about how they can slow down the agenda or be used to block presidential appointments.  But when roles switch and a party that was in the majority becomes the minority, the virtues of the filibuster are suddenly rediscovered.  That is why cooler heads have blocked the nuclear option in the past — members of both parties have realized that majorities come and go, and they all might wish to use the filibuster at some point in the future.

Union officials, however, seem ready to cast such restraint aside.  According to The Hill, they “demanded that Democrats break the logjam by stripping Republicans of the ability to filibuster.”  The “logjam” in this case refers to the nomination of Tom Perez as Secretary of Labor and a slate of five nominees to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). 

The language cited in The Hill is similar to that used by the president of the Communications Workers Union when discussing potential NLRB nominations back in February:  “We expect the Democrats to use every option, including the talking filibuster or rules changes to prevent the Republicans from blocking this.  If they don’t, they can expect us to go after them like we never have before — in the nation’s capital and in their districts — wherever they go.”

Whatever one thinks of these nominations, changing the Senate rules to force them through seems imprudent at best.  First, of the 1,264 nominations listed on the White House’s Nominations and Appointments database as of May 14, approximately 94 percent have received a confirmation vote, which is less than compelling evidence of systemic obstructionism.  Second, unions need only look back at their own stance on the nuclear option in 2005, when Republicans were considering its deployment for judicial nominations.  The president of the AFL-CIO stated that eliminating the filibuster would enable the majority to “pack the federal courts.”  Allowing a simple majority of 51 Senators to approve nominations, he said, would “abandon the democratic principles of the judicial nominations process.”

Thus in a span of eight years, unions have gone from viewing the filibuster as a fundamental part of America’s “democratic principles” to issuing demands that one party be denied the ability to use the procedure.  However, this might be a good time for them to remember the old adage that you should be careful what you wish for.  It would be highly optimistic for unions to assume that their advocates will always have a majority in the Senate.  Those stripped of the filibuster while in the minority may not be so eager to grant it back when unions belatedly rediscover its merits. 

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Glenn Spencer Headshot
Senior Vice President, Employment Policy Division

Glenn Spencer is senior vice president of the Employment Policy division at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.