At the recent memorial service for Democratic House Speaker Tom Foley, former Republican leader Bob Michel talked nostalgically about how the parties used to cooperate on Capitol Hill. Michel said, “We were too conditioned by our personal and political upbringing to assume that we had the market cornered on political principle or partisan superiority.”
Michel’s words came to mind this week, as I tracked the latest Republican hijinks – this time in the Senate, where they wielded the filibuster to block President Obama’s latest attempt to put a highly qualified woman on the federal appeals court in Washington. Cornelia Pillard is the third qualified woman to hit the GOP roadblock, following in the thwarted footsteps of Caitlin Halligan and Patricia Millett. But this isn’t a new manifestation of a Republican war on women, because everyone expects the Senate Republicans to use sabotage-by-filibuster to sink federal district judge Robert Wilkins – the next nominee tapped by Obama for one of the three vacant seats on the D.C. appeals court.
As usual, Senate Democrats are fuming. They’re very good at that (Dick Durbin: “There reaches a point where we can’t allow this type of injustice to occur”). But they always wimp out in the end – retreating from the obvious solution, which is to engineer a Senate rule change so that court nominees are OK’d with 51 votes rather than the 60 required to break a filibuster. There’s no reason to believe they will grow a spine any time soon.
A generation ago, when there was at least a scintilla of comity on Capitol Hill, it was taken for granted that elections had consequences; that when a president won an election (or two), he was entitled to staff the federal judiciary with qualified people of his choosing. The opposition party in the Senate recognized that principle, and honored it. Senate Democrats didn’t routinely weaponize the filibuster; in fact, 15 of the last 19 appointees to the D.C. appeals court were successfully enlisted by Republican presidents.
But those days are over. Sabotage is now routine; dissing the election results is de rigueur. The way it works now is, Republicans concoct bogus reasons to filibuster whoever Obama nominates, just because Obama nominated them. In the partisan Republican trench, his two election wins mean squat.
So they claim that Pillard, who’s rated as unanimously well qualified by the American Bar Association, is actually a “radical” because she has written – be prepared to gasp – that “reproductive rights…have begun to allow women to decide whether and when to follow the path of motherhood.” Yes, folks, Ted Cruz says it’s “considerably outside the mainstream” for a court nominee to observe that today’s women have a say in family planning. (The deal in the Senate, supposedly, was that the GOP would filibuster future court nominees only under “extraordinary circumstances.” Now we learn that a nominee who supports reproductive rights is deemed to be extraordinary.)
Earlier this year, Senate Republicans claimed that Halligan wasn’t qualified to serve on the D.C. appeals court – despite being endorsed by the ABA, the National District Attorneys Association, the New York Sheriffs Association, and two ex-assistant U.S. solicitor generals under Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush – because she once clashed with gun manufacturers in a New York lawsuit. The NRA jerked the Senate GOP’s leash, the GOPers duly launched a filibuster, and it was goodbye Halligan.
But their most bogus rationale is that Obama is supposedly trying to “pack the court.” Actually, he’s trying to fill the court – just like his predecessors did whenever there were vacancies on the 11-seat D.C appeals bench, just like Bush did in 2005 when he successfully filled two vacancies. Having won two elections, he’d earned the right to staff that court with qualified nominees of his choosing.
But we know the real reason why Republicans are dissing the election results, and, therefore, democracy itself.
The D.C. appeals court is widely considered the second most powerful court in America, right behind the Supremes. Huge legislative and regulatory issues – everything from greenhouse gases to national security to cigarette warning labels – fall within its jurisdiction. The court currently has only eight judges, four Republican appointees and four Democratic appointees. Obama’s nominees would tip the balance. Hence the Senate GOP’s determination to stop him at all costs, by routinizing the filibuster. The notion of respecting election results, respecting a president’s right to pick his own qualified people, is dismissed as a relic of a bygone era. Updating Bob Michel, it’s all about cornering the market on partisan leverage.
Only in the U.S. Senate can a nominee like Cornelia Pillard win 58 percent of the voting lawmakers (the vote was 56-41) – and still lose. In response, Senate Democrats flapped their gums as usual. Here was Elizabeth Warren: “If Republicans continue to filibuster these highly qualified nominees for no other reason than to nullify the president’s constitutional authority, then senators…have a duty to change the filibuster rules.” And Pat Leahy: “I think we’re at a point where there will be a rules change.” And Richard Blumenthal: “I think it’s a turning point for this body.”
A turning point in Dysfunction Junction? Yeah sure. We’ll sooner see Rob Ford join the priesthood.
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