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The Filibuster and Obamacare: My Comments on Seth Tillman’s Comments

Seth Barrett Tillman sends in the following thoughts (also posted on The Volokh Consipiracy)  on Obamacare and the Senate’s use of the “nuclear option” to limit the filibuster:

The Nuclear Option and Political Responsibility for Obamacare

 The Senate’s use of the nuclear option pins any defects in the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”) on the Democrats. Until the nuclear option was used, Democrats said that they had to pass an arguably defective bill because they could not get around a minority Republican-led filibuster in the Senate. In other words, although the Senate was able to invoke cloture and pass the ACA when it had Senator Ted Kennedy’s vote, once he died and was replaced by Senator Scott Brown, the Democratic majority in the Senate was unable to pass an alternative bill or substantively amend the ACA.

 But the use of the nuclear option undercuts that narrative. We now know that the Democratic majority always had the ability to change the rules and to end debate on any amendment or amendments to the ACA. The Senate Democratic majority always had the power to terminate debate—it is just that the Senate Democratic majority refused to exercise that power.

 If Obamacare is defective, it is not because the Republicans filibustered or threatened to filibuster any amendments, but because the Senate Democratic majority refused to terminate debate using a power which was always within their reach. It follows that political responsibility for any virtues or defects in the ACA rests entirely with the Democrats who passed it.

I don’t have any comment on the political aspect of this argument, but Tillman raises an interesting legal question. There is no doubt that the Senate majority “had the power” to use the nuclear option in 2010 if by this one means nothing more than it could have acted, as a factual matter, to override any filibuster. This calls to mind the “debate” President Obama had with a heckler the other day, in which the heckler yelled that Obama had the power to stop all deportations by executive order, and Obama replied “Actually I don’t.”

The heckler meant that Obama had the power, as a factual matter, to sign an order halting all deportations, which is certainly true. It is also (virtually) certain that such an order would have the effect, at least in the short term, of stopping deportations and quite likely true that it would prevent any further deportations for the remainder of Obama’s term.

What Obama meant is that although he has the factual power to take this step, he lacks the legal authority to do so. More precisely, Obama believes, or says he believes, that he lacks the legal authority to stop all deportations. On the other hand, Obama believes, or says he believes, that he has the authority to halt certain categories of deportations, and one can see how the heckler might not appreciate the difference.

Which brings us back to the Senate. One might infer from its action last week that a majority of the Senate believes it has the lawful authority to override a filibuster by a simple majority vote, although I cannot identify any coherent legal theory that would support the precise action it took (overriding the filibuster as to non-Supreme Court nominations only). There is a coherent legal theory, advanced by Republicans in 2005, to the effect that the filibuster is unconstitutional as to nominations only (not as to legislation), but it does not appear that the Senate is relying on that theory to support its action.

Leaving that aside, one can say with confidence that if the Senate acted lawfully last week, it could have lawfully overridden the filibuster against the Affordable Care Act in 2010. But it remains possible that a majority of the Senate did not believe in 2010 that it had this authority, and that a majority of the Senate does believe that (due to changes in seats or changes in attitude) today.

One Comment

  1. Alec Rogers says:

    I think the real take away is that the Senate rules mean nothing other than what 51 Senators think they mean at any given time. If a majority member can rule from the chair that what was “x” is now “y” and be upheld than the entire concept that the Senate is a body governed by rules in nullified. The Parliamentarian and her staff are just decor now, to be enjoyed when convenient and discarded when not.

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