Bob Franken: Time to nuke the filibuster
It is time to exercise the “nuclear option” in the United States Senate. The term is classic Washington hyperbole. The bomb-blast bombast is used to portray a threat to do away with most filibusters, the ones that have bogged down almost every piece of consequential legislation by requiring 60 votes instead of just 51 out of 100. As it happens, there is a procedure in place where a mere majority can do away with this stalling. The Democrats have 55 seats, and it’s high time they nuke the filibuster.
There are some arguments for maintaining the various parliamentary tricks used to slow things down in what members pompously call “The World’s Greatest Deliberative Body.” The problem is that Republicans are deliberately sabotaging the entire Obama agenda by blatantly abusing these traditional rules of debate.
The latest case in point concerns Caitlin Halligan, the president’s nominee to the bench of the very powerful Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Because of the nationally significant cases these judges decide, they are considered to be second in legal influence only to the Supremes. Actually, she no longer is the nominee. The White House pulled her name in the face of an unyielding procedural blockade by GOP senators. They were able to make it impossible for her to get the simple majority she needed for concurrence by a Senate exercising its constitutional advice and consent power.
In spite of the strong endorsements she got from her professional peers, conservatives decided Halligan had committed an unpardonable sin: She had crossed the all-powerful National Rifle Association. As New York state solicitor general, she had advocated a law that would hold arms manufacturers responsible for crimes committed with guns they produced. No way, said the NRA, and that was that.
It was just the latest example of how the senators have come to warp advice and consent. When the Founding Fathers were considering a chief executive’s power to appoint, the idea was that he would come up with the names and the Senate would go along, except in extreme cases. Strong deference would go to the president. If you’re interested, check out an explanation by Alexander Hamilton in Federalist Paper 76, in which he writes:
“A single well-directed man, by a single understanding, cannot be distracted and warped by that diversity of views, feelings and interests, which frequently distract and warp the resolutions of a collective body.” What we are witnessing these days is a gross distortion of that original intent.
To be fair, this overreach is not just a Republican one. In the George W. Bush years, Senate Democrats were just as obstructionist and just as wrong. In fact, in 2005, GOP Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist threatened the very same nuclear option. They were able to sidestep that, and today’s Democratic majority leader, Harry Reid, also has decided not to pull the trigger thus far
He needs to reconsider. It’s not just judgeships that have been stymied, although arguably they are a president’s most important appointments because of their lifetime tenure. The obstructionism has ranged far beyond jurisprudence. Richard Cordray’s nomination to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been stuck in this labyrinth. He’s laboring as bureau head under a so-called recess appointment, but it’s not the real deal. He’s effectively constrained from imposing the strong protection he espouses against predatory manufacturers, merchants and banks. The Republicans claim his agency needs more oversight, but Democrats charge they are creating a smokescreen on behalf of their wealthy corporate patrons who find any oversight to be poison.
The entire political process has been poisoned in Washington, and much of the blame for the gridlock rests in the United States Senate with partisans in their bunkers ever ready to exploit arcane rules. It is far past time to employ a bunker buster to dislodge politicians cynically perverting the Constitution.
Bob Franken is a former CNN correspondent. He can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.