I didn’t believe it was biologically possible for the Senate Democrats to grow a spine, but as we saw when the Boston Red Sox catapulted from worst to first, miracles do happen. And so, as of today, Senate Republicans no longer have the clout to sabotage President Obama’s judicial and executive nominees.
Naturally the GOPers are furious that they’ve been stripped of their power to block Obama’s picks (for the simple reason that Obama picked them), but Republicans have only themselves to blame. They radically abused Senate procedure rules in unprecedented ways – half of all the filibusters ever waged against presidential nominees have occurred since Obama took the oath; of the 23 federal district court nominees who have ever been filibustered, 20 have been Obama nominees – and so, yesterday, Republicans got what was coming to them.
The majority Democrats nuked GOP radicalism yesterday by changing the filibuster rules. Until now, 60 votes were needed to stop the routine blockage of presidential nominees; from this point forward, a simple majority of 51 will be enough (though Supreme Court picks will still need 60). The Democrats didn’t want to take this historic step – Harry Reid had threatened and caved on numerous occasions – but enough was enough. The GOP’s knee-jerk blockage of three eminently qualified nominees to the powerful D.C. federal appeals court was the last straw.
Now those nominees will be able to join the appeals court. And more broadly, Obama will finally be able to name new appointees to the Federal Reserve and other crucial executive agencies, and perhaps to reshuffle his Cabinet, without having to run the gauntlet of Republican obstruction during the confirmation process.
(Let us stipulate that the Senate’s wrangles over the filibuster are typically laced with hypocrisy. Back in 2003, when Harry Reid and the Democrats were in the minority, he once filibustered President Bush’s judicial nominees for nine hours, in a bid to block up-or-down votes on the floor. Reid also spoke up for minority rights: “We have a say in here.” And in 2005, when the majority Republicans threatened to erase the 60-vote filibuster hurdle, Reid warned that such a move would be “a dark day.” He and his allies didn’t filibuster Bush remotely as often as the GOP has been filibustering Obama, but suffice it to say, it’s a pity that senatorial hot air can’t be harnessed as a fuel source, because we’d be well on the road to energy independence.)
Granted, filibuster reform is probably a snore to the average American. As issues go, it fails what I like to call the “Hey, Honey” Test – meaning, it’s hard to imagine that millions of couples sat with coffee at the kitchen table this morning and said, “Hey honey, didja see where the Democrats made a big parliamentary move in the Senate to kill the routine filibustering of judicial and executive branch appointees?” Rest my case. And according to a 2010 Pew Research Center poll, only 26 percent of Americans even knew that 60 senators were needed to break a filibuster.
At the same time, Americans routinely complain about “gridlock in Washington.” If they take the time today to glance at headlines, they might pleasantly surprised to discover that something was done – finally – to clear away some of the unprecedented obstruction.
Republicans, of course, don’t see it that way. Mitch McConnell predictably complained that Reid had engineered a “power grab,” but the truth is that the GOP, by filibustering far more aggressively than any previous Senate cadre, had grabbed power in ways that violated the U.S. Constitution and the spirit of democracy.
The Constitution specifically states that a president has the right to staff his government, to pick (qualified) people for the federal judiciary and for top administration posts. That’s one of the perks of winning. Elections are supposed to have consequences. We were taught that in the textbooks.
And nowhere in the Constitution – not in a phrase, not in a syllable, not even implicitly – does it empower a Senate minority to block those nominees. In fact, founding fathers James Madison and Alexander Hamilton specifically warned in the Federalist Papers that tyranny of the minority would be a bad thing. They said that requiring a Senate supermajority (anything more than 51 votes) should be limited to the real big stuff, like ratifying a treaty or convicting an impeached president or ousting an elected official for criminal behavior.
Hamilton warned, in Federalist Paper 75, that “provisions which require more than a majority…have a direct tendency to embarrass the operations of the government, and an indirect one to subject the sense of the majority to that of the minority.” Indeed, “the history of every political establishment in which this principle has prevailed, is a history of impotence, perplexity, and disorder.”
To prevent further impotence and disorder, Senate Democrats had no choice but to reinvigorate the constitutional principle that elections have consequences. Presidents have the right to staff their regimes with qualified appointees. If and when Republicans control the Senate again, in tandem with a Republican president, they too will have the same right to staff the executive and judiciary with qualified conservatives – free of Democratic obstruction.
If you win the White House, you get the staffing perks. Isn’t that what democracy should be all about?
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