Altering filibuster rules could haunt Democrats some day

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Democrats in the U.S. Senate might have served themselves — and the nation — better in remembering the adage: Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.

Last week, the Democrat-controlled Senate approved an alteration of its rules that effectively ends the minority party’s ability to filibuster to block the confirmation of most presidential nominees.

Under Senate rules, filibusters — the act of a senator talking continuously so a vote can’t be taken — can be ended only with 60 votes in the 100-member Senate.

Now, under the rule change, debate can be cut off for executive and judicial branch nominees with a simple majority. This, however, does not apply to Supreme Court nominations or legislation — at least not yet.

It is understandable why frustrated Democrats made the move. The Republican minority has been using the filibuster frequently to block or delay the confirmation of President Obama’s nominees, often for purely political reasons.

The filibuster has been overused in recent years and has contributed to the toxic political climate in the nation’s capital.

However, let’s not forget that Democrats used the filibuster to block President George W. Bush’s nominations.

Whining about the filibuster by the majority party has been going on for several years. But until Thursday’s action, the filibuster was generally considered sacrosanct.

The move, as expected, was met with outrage by the Republican minority.

“If the majority can change the rules, then there are no rules,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. “It puts a chill on the entire U.S. Senate.”

Even a few Democrats, including Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., took umbrage with the move.

“This institution was designed to protect — not stamp out — the voices of the minority,” Pryor said.

Exactly.

Long-standing procedural rules such as the filibuster should not be changed every time the political wind shifts from right to left (and vice versa).

When Democrats changed the filibuster rule, it was an abuse of their majority power and opened the door for further abuses by the majority party, whether it’s the Democrats and Republicans.

One day Senate Democrats will be in the minority and when their voices are crushed by the majority they will have only themselves to blame.

Comments

fatherof5 8 months ago

Republicans broke multiple agreements with Harry Reid to limit their filibusters of judicial nominations. And as this editorial points out, the blocking of nominations has not just been due to objections of the qualifications of the appointee; it has been political.

Have both parties done this? Yes. Is there a fair equivalency? Absolutely not. Republicans have obliterated the previous records for blocking nominees. Some have even admitted to trying to wait out Obama's term before filling the vacancies. Talk about a cynical subversion of the Constitutional powers given to a president.

Here is what these same Republican senators said while Bush was in office...

  1. Mitch McConnell (KY)

“Any President’s judicial nominees should receive careful consideration. But after that debate, they deserve a simple up-or-down vote” (5/19/05).

“Let's get back to the way the Senate operated for over 200 years, up or down votes on the president's nominee, no matter who the president is, no matter who's in control of the Senate” (5/22/05).

  1. John Cornyn (TX)

“[M]embers of this distinguished body have long and consistently obeyed an unwritten rule not to block the confirmation of judicial nominees by filibuster. But, this Senate tradition, this unwritten rule has now been broken and it is crucial that we find a way to ensure the rule won’t be broken in the future” (6/5/03).

  1. Lamar Alexander (TN)

“If there is a Democratic President and I am in this body, and if he nominates a judge, I will never vote to deny a vote on that judge” (3/11/03).

“I would never filibuster any President's judicial nominee. Period” (6/9/05).

  1. John McCain (AZ)

“I’ve always believed that [judicial nominees deserve yes-or-no votes]. There has to be extraordinary circumstances to vote against them. Elections have consequences” (6/18/13).

  1. Chuck Grassley (IA)

“It would be a real constitutional crisis if we up the confirmation of judges from 51 to 60” (2/11/03).

“[W]e can’t find anywhere in the Constitution that says a supermajority is needed for confirmation” (5/8/05).

  1. Saxby Chambliss (GA)

“I believe [filibustering judicial nominees] is in violation of the Constitution” (4/13/05).

  1. Lindsey Graham (SC)

“I think filibustering judges will destroy the judiciary over time. I think it’s unconstitutional” (5/23/05).

  1. Johnny Isakson (GA)

“I will vote to support a vote, up or down, on every nominee. Understanding that, were I in the minority party and the issues reversed, I would take exactly the same position because this document, our Constitution, does not equivocate” (5/19/05).

  1. James Inhofe (OK)

“This outrageous grab for power by the Senate minority is wrong and contrary to our oath to support and defend the Constitution” (3/11/03).

  1. Mike Crapo (ID)

“[T]he Constitution requires the Senate to hold up-or-down votes on all nominees” (5/25/05).

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fatherof5 8 months ago

(In what I submitted, these were numbered 1-10.)

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namvet60 8 months ago

Let's give this story a more viable outlook:

Comes from easy lookup but at least gives a broader picture. It just shows that as the majority changes so do the stories and rhetoric.

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fatherof5 8 months ago

Namvet, I acknowledged in my comment that both sides have engaged in filibustering judicial nominations. The constitutionally appropriate reason to do so is if you feel a nominee is unqualified for the seat. The inappropriate reason is if you simply want to obstruct the elected president's function and prerogative of filling vacant seats.

The question is not whether both sides have abused the filibuster. They have. The question is a matter of degree.

According to Politifact, "By our calculation, (in the history of the United States) there were actually 68 individual nominees blocked prior to Obama taking office and 79 so far during Obama’s term, for a total of 147." Here's the link.

That figure represents an unprecedented level of obstruction, which hasn't been limited to nominations. It has also included President Obama's efforts to revive the economy. Harry Reid was loath to invoke the "nuclear option," as was evidenced by his resistance to the left wing's repeated call for this over the past few years, but the Republicans ultimately gave him no choice. They have effectively shut down the government from a minority position. That can't be allowed to continue for another three years.

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PearlY 8 months ago

Fatherof5, I read the Politi"fact" analysis you linked to. After wading through it, come to find out that "blocking" a nominee may have nothing to do with cloture votes or filibusters. To its credit, the article quotes Mitch McConnell as affirming that the 1540 of President Obama's nominees have been confirmed and only four defeated. But then the article's writer goes haywire.

After saying that McConnell's numbers "weren't off" which is another way of saying they are 100% accurate, he goes on to tag the statement as "Half True" because a bunch of nominees withdrew before a vote or were never nominated, allegedly in 38 cases (and I'm sure actually in at least some cases) because of early opposition. Calling a completely accurate statement "half-true" because it doesn't include measurements it never pretends to measure is so tendentious it leaves me unwilling to waste time on the rest of its claims.

Someone who withdraws his/her nomination or declines to even be nominated is NOT a person who has had his/her nomination blocked by a filibuster, or even blocked at all. If they are included in the 79 you refer to, and apparently they are, then the count is simply a red herring.

Nor is it remotely reasonable to call it obstructive to simply criticize potential or actual nominees who for WHATEVER reason choose not to proceed with their nominations. Among those reasons could well be the fact that the criticisms bring to light real disqualifications.

A confirmation, non-confirmation ratio of 1540 to 4, or 0.26%, is not obstruction, no matter how unpleasant some of the process may be in getting there, and the numbers who have actually been denied a vote out of committee or been filibustered successfully are at most a couple of dozen.

Compare that to Bush's administration where 34 judicial positions were kept open for years, sometimes through filibustering two successive nominees for the same position, in order to leave them open for a possible future Dem president. Obama has filled all of those positions now.

Obama has consistently nominated extreme left-wing judicial nominees, some of whose avowed views on the Constitution would be far more palatable to Lenin or Castro than Madison or Adams and blatantly partisan nominees (at least one of whom could credibly be said to have bought his judgeship with hundreds of thousands of dollars of contributions to Democratic candidates). The fact that some of them are very bright, legally experienced and hard-working means that I'd be delighted to have them come to dinner, but it doesn't mean they should be on the federal bench.

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PearlY 8 months ago

On re-reading my post, I see it sounds like I think a withdrawal for any reason is not a "block." That's not true; if the reason for withdrawal is because the majority refuses to vote someone out of committee over a long time, I'd call that a block. And both sides have some of those, but I think the Dems are ahead at this point.

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fatherof5 8 months ago

PearlY, I hope you had a nice Thanksgiving. As for this discussion, the Politifact article has a link which explains the 1540/4 confirmation ratio in more detail. Among its conclusions is this insight from Ian Ostrander, who has detailed at what point nominations failed in the nomination process: 84 percent stalled or were withdrawn before going before a committee. Another 0.03 percent were rejected by a committee vote, while 0.01 percent were rejected in a floor vote.

"McConnell is choosing to count as failures cases that only account for a small fraction of overall failures," Ostrander said.

There are many ways to block nominations. The vast majority of the time they are stopped before getting to a vote. When nominees withdraw, it is typically because the opposition has made their confirmation so unlikely that they choose to step aside for the good of the country, so that the office may be filled by someone else. So, while the 1540/4 figure is technically accurate, it is also vastly misleading. That's why it only rated a "half-true."

As for your claim that Obama has nominated a bunch of extremist lefties, I don't know where that claim is objectively supported. He himself, contrary to what the Limbaughs and Palins of the world would have us believe, is largely a moderate, which has been a constant frustration to the Occupy Wall Street folks and the real lefties out there. I don't know his nominees personally, but it would surprise me if they were anything but highly qualified, intelligent, moderately-left people.

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PearlY 8 months ago

fatherof5,

Thanks. Due to work schedules, we're celebrating tomorrow. Hope yours was pleasant.

I take exception to the idea that a statement that is unquestionably accurate can be called "half-true" because someone unskilled in logic and reading skills might conceivably take it to mean something you wouldn't like them to.

If the vast majority of nominees who fail do so because they withdraw early, all we know is they withdrew early. YOU conclude they did it for the good of the country; I could just as easily, and just as tendentiously, conclude they do it because they don't want their extremism to come fully to light. Or it could have been because they were too thin-skinned to tough out the confirmation process or because a better gig came along.

All we really know is they withdrew. But that also means they never even got to committee, so they could not possibly have been blocked by the opposing party. Unless it is obstruction for the minority party to even allow anybody to express their concerns about a nominee.

As for Obama being a moderate - true, he's not Mao but he's the farthest left President we've ever had, by a wide margin, and his philosophy, to the extent it can be discerned, is indistinguishable from that of the Occupy people or Hugo Chavez. But then, if you believe that anyone who argues gun ownership is protected by the 2nd Amendment is an extreme right-winger or that positive ID for voting is the same as voter suppression, then by that standard, I guess he would seem moderate.

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fatherof5 8 months ago

If you ask the experts cited by Politifact, it seems pretty clear that there are many ways to block a nomination before they reach a final vote, which causes candidates to withdraw their names from consideration, and that the Republicans have taken that to a whole new level....

....and if you ask folks from Occupy or supporters of Hugo Chavez if Obama is "indistinguishable" from their movements, I guarantee you would get a hearty laugh and an earful about his lack of liberal credentials....

....and if you could ask Ronald Reagan (and many other Republicans at the time) whether or not Obama is an anti-second amendment extremist for essentially proposing the same kinds of legislation Reagan supported with the Brady Bill, Reagan might point out that their positions are virtually indistinguishable AND that Obama has signed every pro-gun piece of legislation to cross his desk.

Is Obama the "furthest left president we've ever had"? He's a bit left of Clinton. I'm not sure about Carter, though. Johnson was a perhaps a moderate at heart, though he pushed through some pretty liberal government programs. Kennedy was a Hawk who had to be pulled into the civil rights movement. Truman? I have no idea. But Obama is definitely not to the left of FDR.

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PearlY 7 months, 4 weeks ago

Call me a victim of ADHD, but to me the more interesting question you present is on whether Obama can be called the "furthest left" as you did (in arguing he isn't) or the "farthest left" as I did in arguing he is. If the left-right divide is a continuum along a line, as I was using it, a point on it can be "farther" rather than "further," but it is an abstract line rather than a physical line, so I suspect your usage is correct and mine was in error. I know a grammar expert; I think I'll submit the question to him.

Oh, and Carter is further left now but wasn't as president, and I don't think FDR was really a leftist, philosophically, although Mrs. FDR certainly was. I doubt FDR really had much of an economic philosophy at all.

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fatherof5 7 months, 4 weeks ago

My intention was actually to quote you, not to correct you, and must of used "furthest" by habit. While we're on the subject, though, typically "farthest" is limited only to physical distance, whereas "further" gets all of the figurative usages, including extensions of time, depth or degree. I just read online where the English don't use "farther" at all, which I didn't know.

I think your point about Carter is accurate.

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fatherof5 7 months, 3 weeks ago

Besides, I wrote "must of" instead of "must have," which is way worse than mixing up further and farther.

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