It’s been a quiet week in Washington, where all the staff members are strong, all the pages good looking, and all the Republicans well below average. It has been a quiet week. The big story of this week is the same as it was last week: the Obamacare website. Normally, reporters claim this kind of stuff isn’t worthy of coverage. It’s old news! But they keep at it because the Republicans keep pushing it. Of course, it isn’t the only old news. Benghazi is back thanks to a really pathetic bit of agitprop by 60 Minutes. And that brings us back to the oldest of stories: the continuing Republican use of the filibuster as de rigueur.
First, there was Lindsey Graham’s stupid tweet Monday, “I’m going to block every appointment in the US Senate until they are made available to Congress.” One has to be surprised, “Oh! So you’re saying that you have reasons for your filibusters now?! How exciting!” Of course I’m just being silly; the occasional politician may claim a reason for a filibuster, but they were planning on it regardless.
And right on schedule, we have filibusters of non-controversial nominations. The Republicans filibustered Patricia Millett for the DC Court of Appeals. In this case, the faux reason isn’t that she is too liberal. As usual for Obama nominations, she’s a moderate. The reason is that the court leans conservative. If Obama is allowed to fill the three vacancies, the court will lean very slightly liberal. So the Republicans have come up with a argument that says the court already has enough judges on it. I won’t get into the specifics because (1) it is highly misleading; and (2) it’s not their real reason anyway.
To blunt the charge that the Republicans are sexist, they also filibustered Mel Watt to run the Federal Housing Finance Agency. You can say a lot of things about him: a sitting member of Congress; an African-American; extremely well qualified. But he is not—and I’m sure that Mr. Watt will confirm this—a woman. It appears he is the first sitting member of Congress to not be confirmed since before the Civil War. But I think it is wrong to say that Republican racism towards Watt is the reason. Much more likely is that it is Republican racism towards President Obama.
Rick Ungar over at Forbes wrote, Enough! GOP Once Again Proves Too Irresponsible to Handle the Filibuster. He notes that during the hearings for Millett, no Republican expressed any concern about her. He’s exactly right when he says, “The use of the filibuster to deny Millet’s nomination is but one more example of the Republicans simply refusing to recognize and accept that Barack Obama won the 2012 election and, having done so, gets to appoint people to fill vacancies in the federal court system.”
But here’s the thing. We can have a friendly game of chess. Or, if you are black and not that good a player, you can bring out the rule book and use every technicality against me. In fact, this used to happen. In the very old days of professional chess, some masters would simply take forever to move in order to force a draw in a lost game. As a result, clocks were introduced. If the game is important enough, people will throw out the norms of fair play and exploit the holes that exist in any rule book.
What’s going on in the Senate is very important. And the Republicans have not only been losing for a long time, they are likely to be losing a long time into the future. (Their only real chance is in 2014.) So they are quite understandably doing the only thing they can to exert force. But the filibuster dates from better times when the Senate was engaged in a much more friendly game of politics. Its time has gone. Actually: long gone. That was clear as soon as the nightly television news announced things like, “The Senate blocked Patricia Millett’s nomination by a vote of 55-38.” That’s right, she got 17 more votes and 59% of the vote but she didn’t succeed. And most observers just accept this as the way things ought to be.
My argument about this stuff has always been different than this. I see it only from a tactical standpoint. Minority rights are great and the Senate has a natural tilt toward conservatives. But once the Republicans have the White House and all of Congress, the Senate will eliminate the filibuster. (They did it before.) They will not stand for the minority being able to do to them what they have done to the Democrats the last 5 years. So the filibuster is going away. So why not at least get the advantage of pushing the courts a bit further back in the liberal direction? But no. It seems that Democrats would rather stand up for a very vile tradition (pdf), and then when the Republicans eliminate it, they can scream about how unfair it is.
What this whole thing shows is that the Republicans really do respond to power. When Harry Reid was hopping mad, the Republicans caved. Now that he’s cooled down, they are back to their old ways. The only way the abuse of the filibuster ends is if the filibuster ends. Sadly, the party who ruined the filibuster, will almost certainly be the party that ends it—gaining all the advantages that go along with that. Think the courts are conservative now? Just wait until President Cruz fills every open seat with nary a word from the Senate.