To: Interested Parties
From: Fix the Senate Now
Date: November 21, 2013
Re: Senate Rules Reform – Common-Sense & Common in Practice
Those who want the U.S. Senate to operate according to its best norms and historical traditions should fully support Senate Majority Leader Reid’s (D-NV) sensible step forward today to cut down on unprecedented gridlock. It is the Republicans’ recent strategy of filibustering and preventing up or down votes on qualified nominees en masse and without respect to their merits that already represents a radical departure from Senate history.
As Senate Majority Leader Reid said on the Senate floor today, “Can anyone say the Senate is working now? I don’t think so.”
Ensuring that qualified nominees receive an up-or-down vote on their merits will help restore the chamber to its functional traditions and should be commended.
Senate Reform: Both Common-Sense and Common in the Senate
The U.S. Senate has changed its practices by a simple-majority vote 18 different times since 1977 – including past efforts led by Senate institutional stalwarts like former Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) (see this recap for dates and descriptions of the 18 previous occasions).
Additionally, the Republican Policy Committee (RPC) issued a stellar overview of Senate reforms by simple majority in 2005 (preserved online here). Or see here for an overview of past years that the Senate reformed the chamber’s procedures regarding the filibuster and cloture rules. Further, the filibuster itself is an historical accident, as this overview from Common Cause describes.
Republicans’ Unprecedented Obstruction – a Break from Senate History
In recent weeks, Senate Republicans have blocked three successive nominees to the influential D.C. Circuit Court, Patricia Millett, Nina Pillard, and Robert Wilkins. The Republicans’ rationale behind their recent obstruction has had nothing to do with the merits of the judicial or executive branch nominees they have been blocking. This is a radical departure from the Senate’s traditional advice-and-consent role and from past Senate battles over the merits of specific nominees.
Each of the three nominees to the D.C. Circuit are exceedingly well-qualified. See this backgrounder for more. As a result Republican Senators have been making ridiculous claims to underscore their obstruction – such, as claims that filling existing judicial vacancies on the DC Circuit represents “court packing” (As conservative columnist Byron York tweeted last spring, "It doesn't strike me as 'packing' to nominate candidates for available seats.") The truth is that Republicans are intent to try and deny President Obama his constitutional authority to fill vacancies. People for the American Way points out, “While President Obama has had just one nominee confirmed to the court, President George W. Bush had four confirmed, George H.W. Bush had three and Ronald Reagan had eight. In fact, 15 of the last 19 judges confirmed to the court were nominated by Republican presidents.”
Compared to past Democratic-led battles to block selected judicial nominees, there is a critical difference. As Nan Aron of the Alliance for Justice said, “We’re operating in a whole different world now. The filibuster was used only a handful of times by Democrats to register opposition to judicial nominees on merit. Now, judicial nominees are being filibustered for an entirely different reason, and that is solely for the purpose of obstruction, regardless of who the nominee is.”
Failed Past Attempts to Reform Runaway Obstruction
Senator Reid and the Senate Democratic caucus have tried – time and time again – to work out bipartisan agreements to ensure that nominees received up-or-down votes. Compromise handshake agreements in January 2011 and January 2013 failed to address runaway Republican obstructionism. In fact, by many measures, the abuse was worse than ever.
And despite initial promise that this summer’s agreement over executive branch nominees would be a permanent breakthrough, the filibusters over the past few weeks has left Senator Reid and the Democratic caucus with no other alternative. Qualified nominees deserve an up-or-down vote
Hand-wringing over the Future
Some observers are claiming that today’s step forward in the Senate will destroy the promise of bipartisanship, lead to Republicans shutting down the Senate in response, or sow the seeds for a future Republican Senate majority to remove the filibuster all together.
However, what Senate – and what Republican Party – have these observers been watching in recent years? Republicans already have shut down the Senate and already have proved their willingness to change the Senate rules if they are in the majority, as they did in 2005.
Today, we moved closer to a functional Senate that, once again, will ensure that qualified nominees can receive an up-or-down vote. This is a step forward that will move the Senate back toward its traditions and constitutional framers’ intentions.
For more information or to interview leaders from the Fix the Senate Now coalition, contact Michael Earls at firstname.lastname@example.org