In a speech on the Senate floor today, Majority Leader Harry Reid criticized Senate Republicans for neglecting their “constitutional obligation” to confirm presidential nominees. As People For’s Marge Baker wrote last week inUS News & World Report, unprecedented obstruction from Senate Republicans has led to a vacancy crisis in the federal courts and contributed to Americans’ loss of confidence in Congress.
In his weekly radio address on Saturday, President Obama specifically called out Utah Sen. Mike Lee, who after complaining about the slow speed of Senate confirmations is now threatening to block every one of the president’s nominees.
Here are Sen. Reid’s remarks:
Americans believe Congress is broken. And it’s no mystery why.
Political divisions in this chamber are so great they often prevent the Senate from performing even its most fundamental duties.
The divisions are so great they have prevented this body from confirming presidential nominees – our constitutional obligation.
These days, it’s no longer enough to be a qualified nominee.
It’s no longer enough to have bipartisan support.
And in the case of judicial nominees, it’s no longer enough to be reported unanimously out of committee.
Last year, my Republican colleagues blocked or delayed scores of outstanding nominees. Why? Because they want to defeat President Obama, who made those nominations. That’s their number one goal.
And at the end of last year, Republicans refused to allow votes on 16 judicial nominees who were reported out of committee unanimously.
Unfortunately, this year may bring more of the same. Already this year, some Republicans have gone to the floor and threatened to drag out the confirmation process for every nominee for the rest of the year.
This Republican obstructionism is supposedly retribution for President Obama’s recess appointment of Richard Cordray – an eminently qualified nominee – to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
With a qualified leader at the helm, the Bureau will be able to effectively protect middle class families from the greed and excess of big Wall Street banks.
It will not impact smaller financial services firms that help Americans who don’t use banks. And it will not impact banks that deal fairly with consumers.
But it will serve as a watchdog against the kinds of abuses that nearly collapsed our financial system in 2008.
President Obama’s right to recess appoint Mr. Cordray is protected in the Constitution.
President Bush had the same right to make recess appointments – even though Democrats kept the Senate in pro forma session.
Bush didn’t exercise that right – or challenge the pro forma sessions in court – because Democrats worked with him to confirm hundreds of his nominees.
Unfortunately, Republicans have refused to work with President Obama as Democrats worked with President Bush.
Instead they are threatening political payback and more delays.
This brand of obstructionism is the reason Americans are disillusioned with Congress. They believe Congress can’t get anything done.
It will take collaboration between Democrats and Republicans to turn that perception around.
We should show the American people that with cooperation between our two parties, this body can accomplish great things.
In his farewell speech, US Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania called on Congress to move quickly to counter the burgeoning right-wing extremism of the Roberts Court and the Republican caucus. Specter, who was first elected to the US Senate in 1980 as a Republican, spoke about how the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts has shown little respect for their own precedents or congressional fact-finding while pursuing a hard line pro-corporate bent. The increasingly conservative Court has consistently ruled in favor of corporations over the rights of workers and consumers, and the concerns of environmental protection and fair elections. Specter specifically pointed to the Roberts Court’s decision in Citizens United, which gave corporations the right to spend unlimited and undisclosed funds from their general treasuries in elections and overturned decades of Court precedents and congressional measures limiting corporate influence in politics. Specter said:
This Congress should try to stop the Supreme Court from further eroding the constitutional mandate of Separation of Powers. The Supreme Court has been eating Congress’s lunch by invalidating legislation with judicial activism after nominees commit under oath in confirmation proceedings to respect congressional fact finding and precedents, that is stare decisis.
The recent decision in Citizens United is illustrative: ignoring a massive congressional record and reversing recent decisions, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito repudiated their confirmation testimony, given under oath, and provided the key votes to permit corporations and unions to secretly pay for political advertising, thus effectively undermining the basic democratic principle of the power of one person, one vote.
Chief Roberts promised to just “call balls and strikes,” and then he moved the bases.
Specter also blasted Republican obstructionism in the Senate. He said that even though 59 Senators backed ending debate on the DISCLOSE Act, which would have required groups to publicly disclose their donors, the important bill never received an up-or-down vote due to Republican procedural moves:
Repeatedly, senior Republican Senators have recently abandoned long held positions out of fear of losing their seats over a single vote or because of party discipline. With 59 votes for cloture on this side of the aisle, not a single Republican would provide the sixtieth vote for many important legislative initiatives, such as identifying campaign contributors to stop secret contributions.
The Pennsylvanian later criticized the GOP for preventing judicial nominees from also having up-or-down votes:
Important positions are left open for months, but the Senate agenda today is filled with un-acted upon judicial and executive nominees. And many of those judicial nominees are in areas where there is an emergency backlog.
When discussing how Senate Republican leaders, such as Jim DeMint (R-SC), supported ultraconservative candidates against Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Bob Bennett (R-UT), and Rep. Mike Castle (R-DE), Specter condemned the GOP’s embrace of “right-wing extremists,” adding: “Eating or defeating your own is a form of sophisticated cannibalism.”
Last weekend, Senator Claire McCaskill put pressure on obstructionist Republicans, announcing that she had enough votes to end the Senate practice of placing anonymous holds on executive nominees. As McCaskill explained in her recent Huffington Post piece, “someone, it seems, secretly has a problem with these nominations but they don't want to be open and transparent about it.”
Apparently, the pressure worked: on Tuesday, 60 backlogged Obama choices were finally cleared by the Senate after months of Republican stonewalling. The confirmations represented a small victory over Senate Republicans’ unprecedented obstructionism, which has plagued the last year and a half of crucial legislative work. The GOP has not only placed an absurd number of anonymous holds on executive nominees; they’ve also set an all-time record on misusing the filibuster to waste the Senate’s time and slow down important government business. Even after Tuesdays slew of confirmations, dozens of nominees remain unconfirmed – as compared to only thirteen at this time in George W. Bush’s presidency.
It’s clear that the Republicans in question don’t have substantive problems with the President’s nominees. Instead, they’re abusing Senate procedure to intentionally disrupt government functions. It’s time for a change in the way the Senate operates, and thanks to Senator McCaskill and her colleagues, we may soon have one.
Senate obstructionism has so crippled one agency that the Supreme Court has ruled invalid over 500 decisions it made over a two-year period.
The National Labor Relations Board, meant to consist of five members, has a statutory quorum of three. But, from the end of 2007 through this March, it operated with just two members. A steel company contested a decision that the two-member board made, saying the board’s decisions weren’t valid without a three-person quorum, and the Supreme Court today agreed.
The question of whether the Supreme Court made the right decision aside (the court, along a 5-4 divide, quibbled about the intent of the statute governing the NLRB), it’s a pretty startling example of the real impact of the Senate’s stalling on executive appointments.
In fact, President Obama finally broke the NRLB’s gridlock in March when he bypassed the Senate to make two recess appointments to the board…after Chief Justice Roberts had urged him to do so in the case’s oral arguments.
By our count, there is currently a backlog of 96 executive nominees waiting for Senate floor votes. A situation like the NRLB’s is extreme, and rare. But it’s a reminder that while the Senate holds up nominees to make political points, there is important work being left undone.
The threat of filibuster is holding up Senate business more than ever before, and Senators are at odds over whether to do away with or amend the rule that’s causing so much trouble.
People for Executive Vice President Marge Baker joined a panel yesterday at American University’s Washington College of Law to discuss what can be done to loosen up the gridlock in the deliberative body.
Baker, Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus and Cato Institute scholar John Samples discussed several proposals that have been put forward to fix the filibuster problem, from limiting lawmakers to a “one bite” rule that would not permit filibusters of both motions to proceed to a bill as well as on the merits of the bill itself to reducing the number of votes needed to invoke cloture to scuttling the rule altogether. But they kept coming back to one point: what’s causing the gridlock isn’t the filibuster rule itself but its increasing use as an obstructionist tactic.
“The problem is not its existence; the problem is its overuse,” Marcus said.
People For the American Way has found that Republicans in the 111th Congress are holding up executive branch nominations at an unprecedented rate, and that they are more than ever invoking the cloture process to delay votes whose outcome they know they can’t change.
“It really is a problem. It really is causing government to break down,” Baker said, “The cloture vote is being used to an unprecedented degree, and the degree to which it’s being used primarily for obstruction, is really a serious problem.”
Here’s a look at the rate of cloture filings in the past 90 years:
And a look at filibuster threats to executive nominees from 1949 through March of 2010:
Senators Jeanne Shaheen and Tom Harkin have introduced a measure to phase out the filibuster in a series of steps, eventually ending in a Senate where votes can pass with a simple majority. Senator Tom Udall has proposed letting the Senate adopt new rules--and make a choice about the filibuster--at the start of every new Congress. But the solution may lie not in taking away the power of the minority to have some leverage in matters that are truly important (nobody likes that idea when they’re in the minority), but in limiting the situations where the filibuster can be used. Marcus suggested taking the option off the table for executive nominations, limiting its use in judicial nominations, and limiting the minority to one filibuster per law. Baker suggested changing the rule that provides for 30 hours of post-cloture debate before a matter can be voted on, which would save enormous time, particularly where the result is a foregone conclusion.
Though, whatever the form that filibuster rules take, I’m pretty sure we can count on the GOP to come up with creative ways to keep on stalling business.
Baker, Samples, Marcus, and moderator William Yeomans at American University's Washington College of Law