Party Competition and the Supression of Minority Rights

Operation_Upshot-Knothole_-_Badger_001This blog post has been in the back of my mind for some time, but is especially relevant given today’s events in the Senate.  I don’t have some profound point to make, rather this is an attempt to correct a misconception about why and when lawmakers decide to suppress minority rights.  It’s a topic political scientists have written about and I think some of the lessons are prescient in light of today’s triggering of the so-called “nuclear option.”
In 1997 Sarah Binder published an excellent book on this very topic entitled “Minority Rights, Majority Rule.”  For this book Binder provides comprehensive examination of the creation and elimination of minority rights from 1789-1994, identifying and coding every formal House and Senate rules change affecting the minority over this period.  As she puts it,  her work seeks to “explain when and why each chamber took the distinctive path it did (p. xi).”

note: As Josh points out in his excellent post below, this wasn’t a formal rules change, but a change in Senate precedent.  Thus, this post is making a generalization that Binder does not make in her book.

A number of folks have wondered why Democrats would move to limit the minority’s right to filibuster the president’s nominees when they stand a good chance of becoming the minority on the future (when, presumably, they’d want the ability to block a Republican president’s nominees).  For example, Mitch McConnell noted earlier today: “Some of us have been around here long enough to know that the shoe is sometimes on the other foot…You may regret this a lot sooner than you think.”

Binder’s work gives us some answers to this question.  What she finds in her data is that changes in the rules are indeed partisan in nature.  However, the majority’s short-term partisan interests (and overall capacity) explain rules changes.  That is, rules changes come about when the majority is blocked from pursuing key political outcomes and they are ideologically homogeneous.  In my mind, that sounds like the modern Democratic party.  But perhaps most importantly, what she labels “party competition” (the likelihood the majority will be in the minority) has no effect.  That is, the subsequent changes in party control has no effect on the likelihood of minority rights suppression.

Binder concludes that these findings have the power to explain “future changes as well” (p. 3).  I’d say today’s events suggest validate her central points.

But why, exactly, is the majority unwilling to take into consideration their electoral prospects when making important rules changes?  I’d speculate Democrats assumed Republicans would “go nuclear” as soon as they regained control of the Senate.  As in a real nuclear confrontation, you want to shoot first.