July 24, 2014
To: Interested Parties
From: Fix the Senate Now
Re: Senate Gridlock & Senate Reform
Last November, the U.S. Senate adopted sensible reforms that established majority votes to end filibusters to most executive and judicial appointees. These reforms, made in response to Senate Republicans’ mass-blockade of qualified candidates, led to a spate of immediate votes and confirmations for long-blocked nominees. Throughout 2014, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and his caucus have built on last November’s reforms and prioritized moving judicial nominations forward, filling an array of vacancies, including a sizeable number who would have been blocked before November.
Despite these positive steps steering the Senate back in the direction of functional democracy, close observers of the chamber recognize that more work needs to be done. There is growing acknowledgment that:
- Republicans’ continuing obstruction, using a variety of stalling tactics, remains a major problem;
- This waste of time, as well as the residual effects of Republicans’ larger obstructionism since the start of the Obama presidency, is taking a toll on basic government functioning; and
- We need to explore additional Senate reforms – especially the “use it or lose it” reform proposal backed by the Fix the Senate Now coalition.
Below, we provide a brief overview of Republicans’ latest obstructionist approach, its consequences, and what to do about it.
Republican Stalling – “A Pure Tactic of Obstruction”
Stephen Spaulding of Common Cause notes that, “While a simple majority can now end filibusters to most nominees, the current minority is exploiting other Senate rules and customs to gum up the works and waste time that ought to be spent on important issues.” Senate scholar Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, explains, Republicans are engaging in “a pure tactic of obstruction, trying to use up as much of the Senate's most precious commodity—time—as possible to screw up the majority's agenda.”
Nan Aron, President of the Alliance for Justice, outlines in a Roll Call op-ed how the time wasting works, “Under current rules, even after the Senate votes to end debate senators can keep on ‘debating’ for another two hours for every district court nominee, eight hours for most executive branch nominees and 30 hours for nominees for circuit courts and the president’s Cabinet. And ‘debating’ isn’t really the right word — senators don’t have to use the time to talk about the nominees, or anything at all. These delays stall confirmation of nominees — many of whom go on to be confirmed unanimously —and prevent the Senate from doing the important business of solving our nation’s problems.”
The depth of Republicans’ commitment to waste the maximum amount of Senate time shows in the following statistic from Common Cause: since last November’s Senate reforms, there have been 31 nominations subjected to cloture votes or reconsidered votes – and then unanimously confirmed (as of July 21).
The Consequences of Time Wasting and Obstruction
Common Cause also provides other damning statistics about the toll from ongoing Republican obstruction in their report, “The ‘New Nullification’ At Work”: As of July 21, their research shows:
- 237 nominees awaited Senate confirmation, including 146 pending on the Senate floor (120 of whom are executive branch or independent agency nominees);
- By comparison, at this point in the George W. Bush administration, only 29 executive branch and agency nominees were pending and only 25 at this point in the Clinton administration
- At a time of global turmoil, the nominees for ambassadorships to 51 countries remain pending on the Senate floor;
- Executive branch and independent agency nominees pending on the Senate floor have been waiting for a confirmation vote for an average of 9 months, including 24 who have been waiting for more than one year.
Additionally, new analysis from Alicia Bannon of the Brennan Center for Justice, titled “The Impact of Judicial Vacancies on Federal Trial Courts,” finds that vacancies “impact the ability of many courts to effectively and timely administer justice. In eight of the 10 profiled districts, judges and court administrators reported that judicial vacancies had a substantial impact on their courts.” The report describes the effects on case delays, shows that less time can be spent on individual cases, and that administrative burdens and a risk of judicial burn-out are higher as a result.
And as Communications Workers of America (CWA) President Larry Cohen noted at the National Press Club this week, continued Senate dysfunction impedes action on a range of important topics. Said Cohen, “The broken Senate rules, money in politics and the destruction of individual voting rights actually prevent us from ever getting to the workers' rights problem, the climate change problem, the economic inequality problem and other issues. Senate rules, in many ways the dullest of subjects, is the front line."
What To Do – the Senate Should Embrace “Use it or Lose it” Reform
Recently, Senate Majority Leader Reid again raised the possibility of Senate rules reform, to address post-cloture stalling. Senator Reid said, “We changed some of the rules. We didn't change that [post-cloture time wasting]…If they're going to continue this, maybe we'll have to take another look at that. Just, it's outrageous what they've done."
As Nan Aron explained, “the next step in rules reform should be to require that senators at least use their debate time to actually debate the merits of the nomination before them: In other words — use it or lose it.” And as a Senate aide told Roll Call, “It’s called debate time for a reason…It’s supposed to be used for debate, not to run out the time arbitrarily. Republicans are making a good case for use it or lose it.”
The Fix the Senate Now coalition strongly supports potential “use it or lose it” reform in the Senate and supports Senate Majority Leader Reid following through on additional reform.
Those dedicated to Senate gridlock and stalling should have to either use the post-cloture time allotted to debate to discuss relevant matters or else lose the allotted maximum time. Such a reform would cut down on time wasting, prioritize debate and accountability, and help shift the burden of obstruction to those looking to block or slow the Senate’s progress.
For more information or to interview leaders from the Fix the Senate Now coalition, contact Michael Earls at firstname.lastname@example.org