WASHINGTON – Way to nuke ’em, Harry.
It was time – actually, long past time – for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to invoke the “nuclear option” and ask his colleagues to change the Senate’s rules. This isn’t about partisan politics. It’s about making what has been called “the world’s greatest deliberative body” function the way the Framers of the Constitution intended.
Recently, it has barely functioned, as Republicans abused the old rules to prevent the chamber from performing its enumerated duties. There was a time when the minority party in the Senate would have been embarrassed to use such tactics in pursuit of ends that are purely political, but we seem to live in an era without shame.
This month, Republicans used the filibuster to block three of President Obama’s nominees to serve on the 11-seat D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, often described as the second most powerful court in the land.
There was no suggestion that any of the nominees – Patricia Millett, Cornelia “Nina” Pillard and Robert L. Wilkins – is in any way unqualified to sit on the court. There was no hint of controversy or scandal. There was no good reason to reject any of them, yet Republicans decided to filibuster all three. And since the Democratic majority controls just 55 votes, short of the 60 needed to break a filibuster, three long-vacant seats on the D.C. court remained unfilled.
There is a stated reason, an ideological reason and a real reason for this pattern of GOP intransigence, each more bogus than the last.
The stated reason is that the judges are not needed because the understaffed court is managing to handle its workload. This is a smoke screen, not an argument. There was no such attempt to set ad hoc standards of jurisprudential productivity when George W. Bush was choosing the nominees.
The ideological reason is that without the three nominees, the court is balanced: Four of its judges are Republican appointees, four are Democratic appointees. Obama, by naming these judges, is allegedly trying to “pack” the court with liberals. But this view, which the GOP can’t be serious about, is a nullification of the way the system is supposed to work. The three seats on the court are vacant. The president who happens to be in office when vacancies arise gets to name qualified replacements, which Obama has done. If Republicans want to appoint more judges they should win more presidential elections.
The real reason is that the Republican political strategy for working with Obama is not to work with him at all. Whatever Obama favors, the GOP opposes. Simple as that.
It wasn’t possible, of course, for Republican senators to block every nominee sent over by the White House. But Obama has seen far more of his executive and judicial nominations die by filibuster than his predecessors.
The Senate’s assigned role in presidential appointments is to “advise and consent” – a duty to be taken seriously. It is inevitable that politics come into play in confirmations. But ultimately the president has to be allowed to do his duty and fill vacancies.
By blocking these three nominations in rapid succession, Republicans knew they were daring Reid and the Democrats to act. Accepting the invitation, Reid moved ahead Thursday to change the rules so that executive and judicial nominations – except for the Supreme Court – can go forward with a simple majority rather than 60 votes.
To hear the Republican reaction, you’d think someone was mandating that senators hold their sessions naked.
There was utter dismay that Reid would even dream of using an arcane parliamentary maneuver to change rules that GOP leaders – who once threatened to do the very same thing – now describe in terms befitting religious commandments. Reality check: The Constitution says nothing about the filibuster, and the Senate’s procedures have never been set in stone.
Republicans warn that Democrats will eventually find themselves in the minority – and rue the day when they limited the filibuster. That may well be true. But even veteran Democrats who were reluctant to tamper with the Senate’s traditions got tired of seeing those traditions abused. Reid made clear that he understands the consequences and is prepared to live with them.
The Senate was designed by the Founders to move slowly but not to be paralyzed. Republican obstruction of presidential appointments makes the government less able to do the people’s work – and less reflective of the people’s will. Elections are supposed to have consequences.
It was time to push the button.Eugene Robinson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist. Email him at eugenerobinson@ washpost.com.