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The Real Reason Reid Wants to Go Nuclear

For those trying to figure out the current state of partisanship, comity, and cooperation in the U.S. Senate, recent news would only add to the confusion. For example, the Hill published a story yesterday afternoon headlined “GOP presses for quick confirmation of Obama UN ambassador pick.” That sounded encouraging for those who think the president should have a great deal of latitude in choosing his own advisors, and the article did not disappoint.

The Hill tells us that Republicans want the nominee, Samantha Power, in her office and settled in by the time the September meeting of the UN General Assembly rolls around. Despite some initial criticism, “Her confirmation is all but assured.” It’s difficult to square that report, which is true, with Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s insistence that the sky is falling in on the Senate’s confirmation process due to Republicans’ intransigence, which is false. As Politico reports, Reid appeared on Meet the Press yesterday to sell his plan to deploy the “nuclear option” to change filibuster rules to speed through certain nominees:

“The changes we’re making are very, very minimal. What we’re doing is saying: ‘Look American people, shouldn’t President Obama have somebody working for him that he wants?’” Reid said. “If you want to look at nominations, you know what the Founding Fathers said: ‘Simple majority.’ That’s what we need to do.”

Reid is set to deploy the “nuclear option” — which would allow 51 senators to change the Senate rules instead of the 67 that are normally required. Triggering it would dislodge several stalled Obama nominees, and it would allow senators to approve executive branch nominees — not judicial nominees or legislation — by a simple majority.

If Cabinet nominees are already getting through just fine, and the proposed changes won’t help judicial nominees or legislation get around the filibuster and receive an up-or-down vote, we can ask why Reid wants the changes enough to “go nuclear.” We can also ask Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell why he opposes such changes so staunchly. One answer is that the nomination changes apply to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the National Labor Relations Board, the latter of which President Obama staffed up by making appointments the courts have found to be unconstitutional, and Republicans want to wait for the Supreme Court’s ruling on the matter.

But the more important answer has to do with a fundamental difference in how the two parties wish to govern–and contrary to what you may hear from the media, it reveals McConnell’s GOP to have far more respect for Congress and the legislative process than Reid’s Democrats.

I wrote about this last month, pointing readers to law professor Jonathan Turley’s column in the Washington Post about the “rise of the fourth branch,” the administrative state that has increasingly usurped Congress’s lawmaking authority without replicating the accountability or (relative) transparency. This is the crux of Turley’s argument:

For much of our nation’s history, the federal government was quite small. In 1790, it had just 1,000 nonmilitary workers. In 1962, there were 2,515,000 federal employees. Today, we have 2,840,000 federal workers in 15 departments, 69 agencies and 383 nonmilitary sub-agencies.

This exponential growth has led to increasing power and independence for agencies. The shift of authority has been staggering. The fourth branch now has a larger practical impact on the lives of citizens than all the other branches combined.

The rise of the fourth branch has been at the expense of Congress’s lawmaking authority. In fact, the vast majority of “laws” governing the United States are not passed by Congress but are issued as regulations, crafted largely by thousands of unnamed, unreachable bureaucrats. One study found that in 2007, Congress enacted 138 public laws, while federal agencies finalized 2,926 rules, including 61 major regulations.

This rulemaking comes with little accountability. It’s often impossible to know, absent a major scandal, whom to blame for rules that are abusive or nonsensical.

The recent scandals at the IRS and EPA, in which a government bureaucracy, egged on by powerful Democrats, absorbed the establishment’s liberal bias so thoroughly as to be actively targeting conservatives, prove both the efficacy and the inherent corruption in this worldview. Democrats understand that if they control the bureaucracy they can install “legislators” who remain anonymous, unelected, and unaccountable. Reid can be voted out of office, but the IRS cannot.

Where once the energetic and youthful liberal grass roots at least had an anti-authoritarian suspicion of government power and abuse, today the liberal movement is united in its belief that government must expand–and keep expanding. When liberal intellectuals swoon over China’s authoritarian rule, it isn’t because they are enamored of Chinese Communism but because the consolidation of power into a ruling elite is, to these intellectuals, an unfortunate means to a desirable end. Sacrificing a bit of freedom and democracy isn’t optimal to the professional left, but otherwise they’d have to pass up an opportunity to impose their dubious and unpopular environmentalist activism on the country.

And the same goes for financial regulation and public-union backslapping. That’s why Reid is willing to “go nuclear” not over judicial nominees or legislation but bureaucratic agencies. Reid isn’t defending the Congress’s traditional role by speeding up votes; he’s changing rules on the fly to further weaken Congress while striking another blow against transparency and democratic accountability. What he hopes is that Americans won’t realize what’s at stake before it’s too late.

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