"For Love of Neighbor" is a new documentary film offering a hopeful vision for Christian engagement in politics. Click here to learn more.

Gridlock or the Nuclear Option: A False Ultimatum

As many of you know, the U.S. Senate triggered the so-called “nuclear option” last week, which changes procedural rules by suspending the Senate minority party’s most precious bastion, the filibuster. Now, only a simple majority—rather than 60 votes—is needed to approve most executive and judicial nominations.

Reid McConnell

Politicians over the years have threatened to use the nuclear option, but never actually have. Most have considered it too deliberate of a power grab, including former Senators Barack Obama and Joe Biden—although, some things do change, as the Washington Examiner reports.

The Obama administration and the Senate majority now say they are fed up with the gridlock in Congress. “We need to do something to allow government to function,” Senator Harry Reid implored a few days before suspending the filibuster. According to their statements, it would seem there is a basic choice here: dysfunctional government gridlock or the nuclear option. But that is a false ultimatum.

Governing is obviously more difficult when government is divided, but is it impossible? Hardly. Remember, there was fierce argument about the composition and ratification of the U.S. Constitution itself! The United States of America would not exist if people of differing opinions had not worked together to compromise for the sake of the country as a whole.

Whether you agree with his policy or not, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has some refreshing thoughts on the issue:

It’s about human relationships. The fact of the matter is, nobody in this city [Washington] talks to each other anymore… They don’t develop any sense of trust between each other… When I’ve developed these relationships with Democratic legislators over time, it means you have to compromise at times, you don’t walk away with everything you want. But if I walk away with 70 percent of my agenda, then New Jersey is 70 percent better than it would have been otherwise. What we have here in Washington…at times, are absolutists.

America was never meant to be run by majority-mob rule—a mode of governing that the nuclear option reflects. Our nation is roughly split in thirds between Democrats, Republicans and independents:

party identification

This means our federal government, which is meant to represent all of us, should not be expected to legislate or act according to one political ideology. Politicians should certainly advocate fiercely for what they believe in, but they must also realize the limits of what the federal government of an incredibly diverse nation can achieve. This is a good reason for why federalism needs a rebirth. States and localities should take the lead in governing, because they are composed of more homogenous, like-minded populations.

At the end of the day, unless there are massive ideological shifts among the America people, the U.S. will never become a bigger version of conservative Alabama. And it will never become a larger version of the liberal Massachusetts. Our leaders need to stop trying to turn it into one of the two.

[pullquote]     Politicians must realize the limits of what the federal government of an incredibly diverse nation can achieve.[/pullquote]

It bothers me that Christie is lambasted as a “RINO” because of his moderate policy. New Jersey is an overwhelmingly Democratic state, so what should we expect from him? He doesn’t have the power to change people’s stubborn minds overnight. Stick him in a firmly conservative state and I guarantee it would be a different story.

So, the lesson from last week’s drama has two parts. One, our federal representatives need to stop trying to do too much. (Good thing government, especially on the federal level, isn’t the answer to all of life’s problems.)

And two, gridlock and the nuclear option are both bad choices. Building relationships, discussing issues civilly and coming to balanced resolutions when the country’s well-being is at stake; that, is how our government is supposed to work.