Abolishing the filibuster, one year later

Posted on November 21, 2014


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It's freezing in Washington this week, but it's not the nuclear winter some Republican senators predicted one year ago today.

Last Nov. 21, a majority of senators — old bulls like Iowa's Tom Harkin (D), new voices like Elizabeth Warren (D) of Massachusetts and independents like Angus King of Maine — voted to set a new precedent: No longer could 41-out-of-100 senators wield veto power over every presidential nomination.

The Senate acted in the wake of unprecedented obstruction: Republicans at the time were blocking up-or-down votes on appellate judges, high-level administration officials and even a member of Congress nominated to lead an agency. Those leading the blockade were transparent about their motives: They had no problems with the credentials of many of these nominees; they just wanted to leave some vacancies unfilled.

Since that day last November, the Senate has confirmed more than 290 nominees to courts and executive agencies, rendering hollow the hyperbolic claims that eliminating the filibuster for most nominations would destroy civilization as we know it. If Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had not acted, entire government offices would have ceased to function and the judicial branch would have had even more vacancies than it does today, delaying justice for thousands of Americans.

Abolishing the 60-vote rule for nominees cut off the ability of a small faction of senators to shut down agencies and nullify laws they oppose by depriving government of a functioning staff.

Of course, a senator can still vote against a nominee on the merits — but no longer can a minority block their colleagues from fulfilling their constitutional duty to provide advice and consent by voting on a nominee.

Still, senators who prefer gridlock have plenty of tools as their disposal. They have invented a new tool of obstruction: the slow walk. By demanding superfluous, time-wasting cloture votes and dragging out the clock, spending days on a single nominee even if the nominee enjoys unanimous support, these obstructors can gum up the Senate and the executive branch. The result is that in the waning days of the lame-duck session, more than 140 nominees await up-or-down floor votes after clearing committee. Compare that to only 39 nominations on the floor at the same point in the George W. Bush administration, during the lame-duck session of 2006.

Nominees who put themselves forward for public service — and the Americans they will serve — should not pay the price of perpetual limbo because a few squabbling politicians are upset with a rule change that means they can no longer block the Senate from doing its job.

One man in particular, Thomas Hicks, has been waiting more than four years — longer than any other nominee — for an up-or-down vote. The agency to which he's nominated, the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), has had no members since 2011. Localities across the country hoping for the EAC's guidance on standards for new voting equipment cannot update their voting machines. As a result, scores of voters in this month's midterms were forced to wait in long lines because of outdated, old and broken voting machines.

With the historic backlog of nominees still on the floor, the Senate should stay in session until it has processed as many nominations as possible before adjourning next month. It's not a matter of settling the score after the election — it's a matter of fulfilling a constitutionally required job.

Office: Common Cause National

Issues: More Democracy Reforms

Tags: The Filibuster

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