Monday, May 20, 2013

Anticipating Nuclear Fallout

Sarah Binder wrote last night about the new threats that Harry Reid is making to go nuclear. The first thing you need to know is that if you're at all interested in the filibuster, you need to read everything that Sarah writes. Especially if you read me on it -- if we differ, remember that I'm just a consumer of Congress research: she produces it.

To begin with, she emphasizes that the mechanism for majority-imposed reform is far more blunt and uncertain than I (and some others) tend to describe it. That's important.

Sarah also argues, also on something that I didn't take into consideration in my posts on this last week: "Republicans can credibly threaten to retaliate procedurally if the Democrats go nuclear.  And that might be a far more credible threat than Reid’s."

I have two reactions to this.

The first is that a lot of liberals will read dismiss it, claiming that Republicans are already maximizing obstruction. That is incorrect. Only one judicial nomination has been defeated by filibuster during the current Congress; there are also a handful of other judicial and executive branch nominations which probably have not been brought to the floor because Reid doesn't have 60. On the other hand, there's a long list of nominations that the Senate has confirmed so far this year. There's also one judicial selection who withdrew after "blue slip" obstruction, but that speaks to Sarah's point: Republicans could make more trouble in other ways than they currently do.

Republican obstruction on nominations is unprecedented and, in my view, unjustified. They have invented a 60 vote threshold for virtually all nominations which never existed before 2009. But it is certainly not universal obstruction. It could be much worse under the current rules.

On the other hand...

I'm very hesitant to disagree with Sarah, but I really don't think much of the retaliation threat. It makes sense to threaten to shut down the Senate, but after majority-imposed reform is imposed, does it makes sense to carry out that threat? I don't think so -- because if it was in the GOP's interest to shut down the Senate, they would be doing it now. In other words, I don't think Republican Senators hold off on more extreme obstruction now because they're nice; I think they do it because they believe it's in their interest. And once they're faced with a new status quo, it would turn out that more less the same incentives apply.

Indeed, we've seen this before. Republicans threatened retaliation if Barack Obama used a recess appointment despite the House-forced pro forma sessions during a Senate recess, but when Obama acted the threat of retaliation turned out to be a dud. That doesn't prove that retaliation wouldn't happen this time, but as I said, I'm just skeptical about it. I'm sure there would be a lot of shouting, and there's a good chance there would be some demonstration of something on the Senate floor, but after a few weeks I suspect it would fizzle out. Now, to be fair, one could go back to that quote I'm so fond of from Maltese Falcon about how in the heat of the moment people don't always act in their own best interests. Given that, and just generally, I'd expect managers of the immigration bill to want to get that done before a filibuster battle begins.

But overall, I continue to think that the threat of massive retaliation if the Democrats go nuclear -- the threat that Republicans could respond by "shutting down" the Senate -- is a relatively minor factor in the chess game. Still: read Sarah's post in full; while I haven't been convinced, there's every possibility that she's right and I'm wrong on this one.


  1. To run with the Maltese Falcon reference, recall that this was how Schelling solved the problem of deterrence not actually being rational. The parallels with "going nuclear" are nice here.

    The idea is that, after your opponent has decided to challenge your threat, what choices do you have? In the nuclear war context, you can either fire back and essentially end all life on earth, or you can let their nuke land in your city without retaliating. While it FEELS like the 2nd option is bad, logically, what's the better world: the one where your country has been horribly damaged, or the one where life on earth (including yours) has been extinguished? A is better than B. So, the threat to inflict B is an empty one.

    Schelling's solution was to imagine that you gave up control over A and B. Rather, you made it so that there was ALWAYS a likelihood that B would happen outside of your control, and that likelihood went up if the opponent attacked. In a sense, you precommit to a lack of control.

    Now, the Maltese Falcon reference is apt here. The question is: would Senate Republicans be driven to the crazy by their incensed base? Would they be that crazy themselves? (cough...Cruz...cough) On the second question, I say no. Cruz and maybe Paul would go for that (Paul less because he's crazy and more because his views on government don't make the total lack of it a problem for him.) On the first, I agree with you: the same incentives apply. The base is ALREADY calling on them to do the crazy, due to whatever slights Obama is imagined to have done in the last week (OK, the last week is a bad example, but the hundreds of weeks before that were good examples).

    I guess that's a VERY long-winded "me too"

    1. It turns out that the Russians actually did set up a system that would retaliate automatically if the national leadership was wiped out. Just like the Soviet premier in Dr. Strangelove, they neglected to tell anyone, pretty much giving up any deterrent effect that it might have had. Should have read their Schelling.

      See David Hoffman, The Dead Hand.

    2. "Should have read their Schelling"


      I'm just thinking of the notion that political scientists should be read by politicians who we're trying to understand. "If only they knew what we think they think, they might actually think that!" It certainly would make our lives easier!

  2. Isn't the real threat that the HOUSE GOP would retaliate for instance by refusing to raise the debt ceiling, tanking the economy, and thereby causing Democrats to lose the Senate and possibly the White House in 2016 (because voters don't follow the ins and outs of Congress and usually just blame the majority/Presidential party when the economy goes bad)?

    1. Could be, but then, doesn't the logic of "why haven't they done this already" still apply?

      Not saying no, but I think it falls prey to the same problem, theoretically, that we're kinda butting our heads up against.


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