WASHINGTON — For all the railing against dysfunction in the nation’s capital, very little had actually happened to overcome it — until this week. That’s why the agreement to begin putting an end to Senate filibusters of presidential nominees is a very big deal. It is an acknowledgement that the only way to stop political bullying is to confront the bully.
On its face, the accord allowing seven of President Obama’s executive branch nominees to gain confirmation without having to reach 60 votes would seem to be a climb-down by Democrats. They shelved plans to change the Senate rules and bar filibusters of the president’s appointments to agency and cabinet jobs.
But this understates the magnitude of the victory. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell would have let the nominees through only if the Democrats promised not to alter the rules for the rest of this Congress. Yet such a capitulation would have opened the way for future filibusters.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid stoutly refused to sheath the sword of a subsequent rules battle. The nominees went through on the basis of a modest concession. President Obama agreed to withdraw two recess appointees to the National Labor Relations Board, Richard Griffin and Sharon Block, in exchange for confirmation of two new nominees who would be equally sympathetic to the rights of workers. It’s unfortunate and unfair that because of the filibuster, Griffin and Block had to accept recess appointments that are now the object of a lawsuit. They can have at least the partial satisfaction of being instruments in a settlement that could end the injustice to which they were subjected.
Defenders of the filibuster have let loose torrents of empty words about preserving the “traditions” of the Senate and maintaining it as the “cooling saucer” (an observation attributed to George Washington) that would temper the passions of the House. What has been happening has nothing to do with tradition or deliberation. Rather, the Republican right has radically restructured the Senate by sharply escalating uses of the filibuster, which is not, in any event, in the Constitution. This has been a power struggle, pure and simple.
Of course, Democrats have used the filibuster in the past. What’s important here — and it’s the reason this confrontation was necessary — is that the Senate GOP has gone far beyond its “normal” uses.
There is, first, the evidence of numbers. As Jonathan Cohn pointed out in The New Republic, filibusters of presidential agency nominations were once very rare, happening only two times each to Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Bill Clinton had nine nominations blocked, and George W. Bush had seven. Obama is “already up to 16 blocks,” Cohn noted.