Senate Rules Reform ? the Weekly Recap, July 26, 2013

Washington, DC – The U.S. Senate’s recent agreement to move forward on a slate of executive-level nominees signaled a refreshing step forward toward restoring functionality to the U.S. Senate. However, as a range of observers have commented in the past week, the Senate remains a bastion of obstruction – especially in regards to judicial nominations.   

As Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, noted in a letter to the editor published in the Boston Globe: “The compromise essentially restored the status quo in respect to executive nominees that had applied before the administration of President Obama. The compromise did not address the judicial vacancy crisis, which has left the lower federal courts with a vacancy rate of approximately 10 percent the past four years. If Republican obstruction of judicial nominees persists, Democrats should seriously consider additional filibuster reform.”

See below for post-agreement developments and additional commentary regarding Senate rules and obstruction:

Coverage and Analysis

  • Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-KS), as reported by CNN: “Senate leaders should change how they use the filibuster…There are things that should be stopped, but at least there ought to be a vote…It can't continue, this constant holding up bills."

Former Majority Leader Bob Dole on Senate rules abuse

    • Jennifer Bendery, Huffington Post: “It may not be factually accurate, but some Republican senators just can't resist accusing President Barack Obama of ‘court-packing’ as he tries to fill empty seats on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals … Not only is the charge factually inaccurate -- the court has three empty seats, which the president is constitutionally required to fill -- but one could easily make the case that Republican efforts to prevent Obama from filling empty court seats, thereby keeping those courts from having any more judges appointed by a Democrat, are actual instances of ‘court-unpacking.’"
    • E.J. Dionne, Washington Post: “Rationalizations for filibusters, moreover, have reached into anti-constitutional territory. Republicans were preventing the confirmation of Richard Cordray as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau not because there were problems with him but because they were still mad that the agency, which expands consumer power over financial institutions, had been created in the first place … it will take continuing pressure to keep the obstructionists at bay.”
    • Mark Moulitsas, The Hill: “Make no mistake, last week’s events ended the filibuster as we know it. Reid’s gambit was to eliminate the filibuster only for administration nominations, not judicial ones or legislation. But this deal means that a Senate majority can play the nuclear card anytime the minority amps up its obstruction beyond reasonable levels. And that applies to all Senate business — not just administration nominations.”
    • Joan McCarter, Daily Kos: “Last month, Obama nominated three people as a package to fill the remaining vacancies, and Republicans immediately reacted by introducing legislation to reduce the number of seats on that court. These nominations are going to come up in the fall, after August recess and while the Congress is also dealing with the budget and with the debt limit. There will be real incentive for Obama and Senate Democrats to backburner these nominations—and the fight that's going to come with them—to not poison the well during the budget debate. That would be a real mistake, for the judiciary, for the country, and for Obama's legacy. For years to come.”
    • Stephen Spaulding, Common Cause, in The Hill: “But the Senate minority retains its power to use the 60-vote filibuster rule to block other nominees and keep the Senate from even debating matters like gun violence prevention and student loan rates … Fortunately, Reid and his colleagues stood up this time against those who prefer gridlock to legislating. Hopefully, this was just step one.  It shows how broken the Senate has become that merely doing its job – providing advice and consent – is grounds for late night joint caucuses and dueling press conferences.  Until the Senate reins in the power that the 60-vote filibuster rule provides to its minority, we will still need to work to reclaim democracy.


    • Editorial, New York Times: “But there is always another crisis to come. That’s why it’s regrettable that Mr. Reid and the Democrats didn’t vote to change the rules for this Senate and for a future one controlled by Republicans. They should have stood up for the principle that simple-majority votes should determine confirmation of executive appointments, not a 60-vote threshold that gives minority parties a veto over a president’s team and that was unintended by the Constitution.”
    • Editorial, Seattle Times: “There are about 100 vacancies among federal judicial appointments as Republicans filibuster nominees. That compares with about 40 at the same point in George W. Bush's presidency. Once a filibuster is threatened, there are no all-night speeches — a la Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis — required. Senate rules allow the threat of filibusters and require 60 voters to break them. Inside the Beltway, filibuster reform — allowing filibusters to be broken with a simple majority — is called the "nuclear option." Outside the Beltway, that's known as an election.”
    • Editorial, Providence Journal: “It’s too bad that Mr. Reid had to threaten to make the rules change, but the public deserves to have qualified and honest people put into these big jobs expeditiously so that the government can do its work.”
    • Editorial, Wilmington News-Journal: “The fight is over the president’s legacy. Judges usually stay in office long after a president leaves. When President Obama came into office, 60 percent of federal judges were Republican. If all of the current openings were filled by President Obama, the Republican affiliation would fall to below 50 percent. Therefore, the Republican fight has been to stall confirmations. Our trial courts need those seats filled. The functioning of our courts is more important that partisan politics. We have opposed Democratic politicking when George Bush was president. The president won. He gets to pick, we said then. And we say it again now. Barack Obama won. He gets to pick the judges.”
    • Editorial, Fresno Bee: “This temporary truce is fine, but it does nothing to end minority obstructionism on judicial appointments and legislation -- or future appointments. This deal should be the last of its kind struck in the Senate. It is long past time to change the filibuster rules.”
    • Editorial, Iowa Press-Citizen: “But the rule changes over the past half-century have mutated the filibuster beyond its original purpose. And now the mere threat of a filibuster is able to bring Senate business to a near standstill in which a three-fifths supermajority is needed to conduct almost any procedural business … The change Reid threatened this week was a minor, commonsense reform. As such, we’re almost disappointed that a compromise was reached. This was one, focused, limited, overdue “nuclear option” we wish had gone off.”


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