Every Washingtonian needs reminding from time to time that the politics of Capitol Hill are far removed from the goings on in ‘real America’. Perhaps most indicative of this is the current knock out fight regarding the ‘nuclear option’. For the past week Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have taken to the airwaves slinging nasty pot shots at each other regarding Reid’s very serious threats to instate the ‘nuclear option’. This evening, leadership from both sides of the aisle will holding a closed door meeting in the Old Senate Chamber to try to hammer out a civilized compromise on the impending changes to legislative procedure. Here’s a breakdown of all you need to know to understand why Washington is all in a tizzy over this latest insider brawl.

  • By definition, the ‘nuclear option’ is when the Presiding Officer of the Senate, in this case Harry Reid, overrides the parliamentary rules to allow the Senate to end a filibuster through a simple majority vote versus the standard rules that require a 60-vote threshold to end a filibuster
  • The ‘nuclear option’ has been on the table since the 2012 election when the Democrats gained a majority, but not a super majority (60) in the Senate
  • At the start of 2013, a bipartisan negotiation in the Senate removed the ‘nuclear option’ from the table for a brief period, as the Democrats and Republicans agreed to adjust the rules to eliminate the minority right to filibuster bills so long as each party were allowed to present at least two amendments to the legislation for debate.
  • Harry Reid’s current threat for the ‘nuclear option’ is allow for the end of filibusters on executive nominations with a simple majority rather than a super majority vote.
  • Reid is instating the ‘nuclear option’ now as part of an effort to pass through seven Obama nominations that are scheduled to be voted on on Tuesday and are expected to spark fierce partisan debate. These nominations include picks for the National Labor Relations Board, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Labor Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Export-Import Bank.
  • Reid claims the ‘nuclear option’ would only be a minor change, and would only bring positive change to the Senate by over-ruling partisan gridlock for routine nominations. Republicans however are outraged, calling the changes the “end of the Senate” and claiming it will create an unfairly stacked liberal bureaucracy.

So why should you, the average person who thinks Capitol Hill semantics are a joke, care? Because a fight like this epitomizes everything that is wrong with Congress. In seeking out the ‘nuclear option’, a very serious term for a very boring subject, Harry Reid is going after a short term fix for a systemic problem. Yes, removing the filibuster will allow cut and dry issues like bureaucratic nominations to pass through the chamber much more easily. But while the Democrats like this idea while the ball is in their court, what happens when the Republicans take over majority in the Senate? Changing parliamentary rules does nothing to change the deep seated problem of hyper-partisanship in Congress. That requires real work, more than just a simple majority vote.