Trump’s nuclear cabinet appointments BY JEFFREY OPPENHEIM, M.D.
BY JEFFREY OPPENHEIM, M.D.
Thanks to the Democrats, Donald Trump will be relying upon the “nuclear option” almost immediately.
This is not to say that he will be starting a nuclear war, but that he can rest comfortably knowing that even his most controversial nominees to more than 1,000 government positions cannot be stopped by the Democrats, as might have been the case in years past. For Obama and the Democrats in the Senate, the chickens have come home to roost.
All approval votes in the United States Senate require a simple majority. However, for more than a century any single Senator could block a vote by invoking his right to continue debate indefinitely. The word “filibuster”, which comes from the Dutch word for “freebooter” or plunderer, was first used in the 1850s to describe this tactic for preventing a vote.
The origin of the filibuster dates back to Aaron Burr who, as Vice-President, presided over the Senate in 1805. At that time both the House of Representatives and the Senate had a simple method to close debate by the vote of a simple majority (called the “previous question” motion). Burr facilitated elimination of this rule in the Senate, though it remained in the House. Because the Senate was felt to be a small deliberative body some believed that debate should continue as long as necessary. However, no one at that time thought that using a protracted debate could be a minority tactic to block a vote supported by the majority. Indeed, it wasn’t until 1837 that the first filibuster occurred.
In an effort to limit filibusters, the Senate adopted “Rule 22” in 1917, which allowed the Senators to close a debate if 2/3rds of the voting Senators agreed. This vote, called “cloture” was first used in 1919 to stop a filibuster against the Treaty of Versailles. In spite of this rule, filibusters have continued to be used since that time on a variety of important issues. Democratic Senator Strom Thurmond filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1957 for more than 24 hours (though the bill still passed). In 1964, Democrats filibustered against the Civil Rights Act for 60 days until a cloture vote succeeded. In another effort to restrict filibustering, Democrats changed the rules in 1975 so that 3/5ths (or 60) of the sworn Senators could enact cloture.
In 2005, the Republican led Senate was frustrated by threats from the Democrats to filibuster President Bush’s nominations to the courts. They suggested that Vice President Cheney had the legal right to declare (as President of the Senate) that the rules set by the Constitution allowed a simple majority vote without filibuster for Judicial appointments. Senator Trent Lott called this “the nuclear option” because of the extreme nature of its force in disregarding almost 230 years of tradition.
Then Senator Barack Obama condemned the idea, stating “I urge my Republican colleagues not to go through with changing these rules. In the long run it is not a good result for either party. One day Democrats will be in the majority again and this rule change will be no fairer to a Republican minority than it is to a Democratic minority.” Senator Reid said, “You should not be able to come in here and change willy-nilly a rule of the Senate.” A compromise was reached in which the Democrats agreed not to filibuster nominees except for extraordinary circumstances, and the rule change was avoided.
However, when the shoe was on the other foot, Mr. Obama and Mr. Reid suddenly changed their tune. In November 2013, with Democrats holding a majority (but fewer than 60 votes) in the Senate, complaints were made that the Republicans were filibustering Obama’s judicial appointments. In reality, most of Obama’s judicial appointments had been approved and the rejection rate was comparable with that of past Presidents. But this didn’t matter to Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Democrats. They passed the “nuclear option” rule change with a purely partisan vote.
The New York Times reported on Nov. 21, 2013:
WASHINGTON — The Senate approved the most fundamental alteration of its rules in more than a generation on Thursday, ending the minority party’s ability to filibuster most presidential nominees… Under the change, the Senate will be able to cut off debate on executive and judicial branch nominees with a simple majority rather than rounding up a supermajority of 60 votes. The new precedent established by the Senate on Thursday does not apply to Supreme Court nominations or legislation itself… The changes will apply to all 1,183 executive branch nominations that require Senate confirmation — not just cabinet positions but hundreds of high- and midlevel federal agency jobs and government board seats.
President Obama lauded the rule change, but Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell warned, “I say to my friends on the other side of the aisle, you’ll regret this. And you may regret it a lot sooner than you think”. How prescient.
In 2013, the New York Times Editorial page was ebullient that the rules change had “begun to tear down undemocratic procedures” and that “it was necessary to turn the Senate back into a functioning legislative body”. One wonders whether they will be eating those words as President-Elect Trump’s various nominees appear for Senate approval starting on January 20th. Trump certainly knows that he now has the ability to appoint with impunity men and women whom the Democrats might have otherwise sought to block. For example, Democratic Senators are up in arms about Jeff Sessions being nominated to be the next Attorney General based on allegations that he has made racial slurs in the past. Well, the chickens have indeed come home to roost.
On another nuclear matter, Trump now has the opportunity to address America’s nuclear waste problem in a definitive manner.
Since the beginning of the nuclear era the United States has been accumulating spent nuclear fuel and high level radioactive waste at sites throughout the country. Nationally, there is more than 75,000 metric tones of nuclear fuel awaiting a final resting place. In 1987 Congress authorized the establishment of a nuclear waste repository under Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The site was felt to be a geologically suitable repository for at least the next 10,000 years. Nevada objected, but Congress overrode their objections and more than $12 billion was spent building this deep underground facility.
In a purely political move, Senator Harry Reid, the Majority leader from Nevada, agreed to help Obama if the President would block the opening of the Yucca repository. Obama appointed a Reid aide to be the chairman of the NRC in 2009 and the following year the project was shut down.
In the meantime, nuclear waste continues to accumulate at sites around the country. For example, at Indian Point, more than 6,000 hot 12 foot radioactive spent rods sit inside steel canisters outdoors, surrounded only by a wire fence and monitored by surveillance cameras (and there are more than 5 times as many spent rods at Indian Point than there were at Fukushima). Yet, no alternative permanent nuclear waste repository has been proposed.
President-Elect Trump should reopen Yucca Mountain and begin the process of safely storing the nation’s nuclear waste stockpile before terrorists or an act of nature creates an environmental disaster. The safety of Yucca has already been demonstrated and the politics (with the retirement of Senator Reid) have also been simplified. Regardless of one’s opinions of nuclear power, the safe disposal of nuclear waste will not disappear until it is buried.
-Jeffrey Oppenheim is a neurosurgeon and the former Mayor of Montebello, New York