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Going Nuclear, Senate Style

  • Sarah A. Binder (a1), Anthony J. Madonna (a2) and Steven S. Smith (a3)

Conflict within and beyond the United States Senate has refocused scholarly and public attention on “advice and consent,” the constitutional provision that governs the Senate's role in confirming presidential appointments. Despite intense and salient partisan and ideological disputes about the rules of the game that govern the Senate confirmation process for judicial appointees, reformers have had little success in limiting the ability of a minority to block contentious nominees. In this paper, we explore the Senate's brush with the so-called “nuclear option” that would eliminate filibusters of judicial nominees, and evaluate competing accounts of why the Senate appears to be so impervious to significant institutional reform. The past and present politics of the nuclear option, we conclude, have broad implications for how we construct theories of institutional change.Sarah A. Binder is Professor of Political Science at George Washington University and a Senior Fellow at The Brookings Institution ( Anthony Madonna is a Ph.D. candidate at Washington University ( Steven S. Smith is the Kate M. Gregg Professor of Social Sciences, Professor of Political Science, and Director of the Weidenbaum Center, Washington University ( The authors thank Stanley Bach, Richard Baker, Greg Koger, Forrest Maltzman, Elizabeth Rybicki, Eric Schickler, and Greg Wawro for helpful comments and advice.

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Bach, Stanley. 1991. The Senate's compliance with its legislative rules: The appeal of order. Congress and the Presidency18 (1): 7792.

Pierson, Paul. 2000. Increasing returns, path dependence, and the study of politics. American Political Science Review94 (2): 25167.

Smith, Elbert B.1953. Thomas Hart Benton: Southern realist. American Historical Review58 (4): 795807.

Welch, Richard E., Jr.1965. The Federal Elections Bill of 1890: Postscripts and prelude. Journal of American History52 (3): 51126.

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Perspectives on Politics
  • ISSN: 1537-5927
  • EISSN: 1541-0986
  • URL: /core/journals/perspectives-on-politics
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