In U. S. politics in recent years, the term nuclear option has been employed to refer to the elimination of the filibuster rule in the Senate. The Senate requires a supermajority, currently three-fifths or sixty votes, to invoke cloture and end debate on a subject and proceed to a vote. This rule gives the minority power considerable power to block presidential appointments and legislation. But where does nuclear option come from and why nuclear?
The obvious answer is that it’s a metaphor for a nuclear weapons strike. The use of nuclear option in its literal sense, meaning the choice to use nuclear weapons in a war, dates to at least 1962, when it appears in an article in the American Political Science Review. The term has also been used to refer to the choice to use nuclear power for energy generation since at least 1980, when it appears in an article in Harper’s magazine on energy independence.
The figurative use of the term dates to at least 1996, when an article in the Daily Telegraph printed:
The so-called “nuclear option” of imposing a wide-ranging ban on other European foodstuffs is [...] highly unlikely at this stage.
But the use in American congressional politics, the figurative sense that we see it most today, is more recent. On 12 May 2003, an article in the Christian Science Monitor titled “Judicial Nominee Logjam? Change the Rules” opened thusly:
After eight failed efforts to break a standoff over two judicial nominations, the Senate GOP leadership is brandishing what insiders are calling the nuclear option: a bid to change the rules—and the nature—of the Senate.
In this case a compromise was reached and the nuclear option was not invoked, but the parliamentary brinkmanship continued for another decade, and finally in 2013 the rules were changed to allow a simple majority for cloture on presidential appointments, not including nominations for the U. S. Supreme Court. And in 2017, that domino toppled and Supreme Court nominations began to require a simple majority for cloture. As of this writing, the three-fifths rule is still in place for ordinary legislation.
Corpus of Historical American English, Brigham Young University, May 2016.
Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, December 2003, s. v. nuclear, adj. (and adv.) and n.
Copyright 1997-2017, by David Wilton