filibuster reform

  • November 21, 2013

    by Rebekah DeHaven

    Today the Senate took a historic step to change the filibuster rules for judicial nominees so that they only require 50 votes, and not 60, for confirmation. Referred to as the “nuclear option,” this rules change is a bold move by Senate leaders, and one forced upon them by obstructionist senators striving to block President Obama’s nominees. Quoting ACS President Caroline Fredrickson, “something had to give.”

    Over the course of the past month these obstructionists have halted all three of President Obama’s candidates to fill the three vacant seats on the D.C. Circuit Court. There are no credible doubts about these nominees’ qualifications. Instead, some senators tried to argue that the D.C. Circuit’s caseload doesn’t necessitate filling these vacancies, even though the Judicial Conference, headed by Chief Justice John Roberts, recommended maintaining the 11 seats on the D.C. Circuit.

    The real reason for the blockade lies in the importance of the D.C. Circuit and some senators’ desire to maintain its conservative tilt. Of the eight active judges on the court, four judges were nominated by a Republican and four were nominated by a Democrat. However, there are six senior judges, five of whom were appointed by a Republican. These senior judges routinely hear cases and participate in court decisions, so their importance should not be underestimated. Often described as the second-most important court in the country, second only to the Supreme Court, the D.C. Circuit hears many complex and regulatory cases that involve the federal government. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid explained, “It is a troubling trend that Republicans are willing to block executive branch nominees even when they have no objection to the qualifications of the nominee... And they block qualified judicial nominees because they don’t want President Obama to appoint any judges to certain courts.” With the official government shutdown over, certain lawmakers embarked on an effort to shut down the judiciary instead.

    There are 93 current vacancies in the federal judiciary and 38 judicial emergencies throughout the country. This leaves over 10 percent of the federal judicial system vacant, hindering people’s access to the courts in a timely manner. Facing this dire reality, Senate leaders reformed the filibuster rules to ensure that President Obama’s nominees get a fair vote and are not held hostage to a partisan agenda. The change was a necessary step to stem the judicial vacancies crisis from becoming an even larger emergency in the future, and to get the confirmation process back on track.

  • April 25, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Last year, Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) took to the Senate floor to bemoan his Republican colleagues’ ongoing use of the filibuster to block or greatly delay the president’s nominations to executive branch agencies, the federal bench, and to defeat consideration of legislation.

    Reid then praised some of the senators who have been pushing for filibuster reform, such as Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). The plan, in part, would force senators to work harder to sustain a filibuster. Merkley calls it a “talking filibuster.” In a press release, Merkley explains how his proposed changes would blunt the use of the filibuster. (Sen. Merkley is one of the featured speakers at the 2013 ACS National Convention in June.)

    As it stands now Republicans have crafted a new norm of requiring a supermajority to end debate and allow up-or-down votes on legislation and nominations. The compromise gun bill was killed because of this new norm, though some wobbly pundits suggested the president was at fault. Indeed the late Bob Edgar blasted the use of the filibuster as essentially shutting the place down and his group lodged a lawsuit to force reform of the procedural tool.

    At the start of the 113th Congress, Merkley and other senators urged a simple majority vote to change the Senate’s rules on the filibuster. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), said “a revolution has occurred in the Senate in recent years. Never before was it accepted that a 60 vote threshold was required for everything. This did not occur through Constitutional Amendment or through a great public debate. Rather, because of the abuse of the filibuster, the minority party – the party the American people did not want to govern – has assumed for itself absolute and virtually unchecked veto power over all legislation, any executive branch nominee, no matter how insignificant the position, and over all judges, no matter how uncontroversial.” 

  • March 7, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Sen. Rand Paul, (R-K.Y.) may be a strident, sometimes over-the-top Tea Party supporter and fervent antigovernment advocate, but his filibuster of President Obama’s pick to head the C.I.A. was principled. He did so by actually taking to the Senate floor to explain, albeit in very long fashion, his opposition to the administration’s nominee C.I.A. John Brennan, who was confirmed today for the position.

    Paul’s action was far different than the Republican obstructionists’ baseless and practically silent filibuster of Caitlin Halligan to a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. As Greg Sargent writes in The Plum Line, “Paul’s filibuster was born out of concern about an actual issue – objections to Obama’s approach to drone warfare that are shared on both sides of the aisle.” [See below for more commentary on the Obama administration’s secretive use of drones]

    Halligan, however, was blocked by senators who on the whole probably spoke less than two hours about Halligan. And their objections were incredibly lame. She’s received the ABA’s highest ranking for qualification and exceedingly strong support in the legal community, both conservatives and progressives.

    Republican senators have been obstructing the judicial nominations process ever since Obama first took office. The president was not able to appoint a judge to the D.C. Circuit during his first term because of Republicans’ obstinacy. There is simply a great desire among the Senate Republicans to keep as many vacancies open, especially on the powerful D.C. Circuit, for as long as possible. These obstructionists are beholden to a base that coddles the superrich and riles up a shrinking group, albeit loud and still influential, obsessed with keeping the courts packed with right-wing ideologues. Too many of those right-wing jurists help support state efforts to abolish abortion and make life much more difficult for those in the LGBT community and undocumented persons.

    The sham filibuster, which is the preferred tool of the Senate’s obstructionists, has become the norm. It has been used to halt consideration of policy such as efforts to confront climate change or address immigration reform; but it has most often been used to delay or kill executive branch or judicial branch nominations. Indeed, thanks to the sham filibuster, the Republicans have helped create more than 80 vacancies on the federal bench. In fact vacancies have hovered at 80 or above for much of Obama’s term. The Senate Republicans’ assault on the federal bench, serves their political purposes, but harms the judiciary and Americans who rely on the courts to uphold constitutional rights and seek redress of grievances. A federal bench burdened with fewer judges and larger caseloads is no way for the judiciary to function.

     

  • January 24, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    The momentum for serious reform to the filibuster picked up steam last year after Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) expressed great frustration over Republicans abuse of the legislative tool. Reid had faced nearly 400 filibusters since leading the Senate and admitted he was slow to embrace filibuster reform. Reid claimed he was finally ready to support serious reform proposals championed by Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.).

    But it now appears Reid is ready to suffer ongoing Republican obstructionism in the Senate. TPM’s Sahil Kapur reports that Reid is nearing a deal with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-K.Y.) “to enact minor changes to the filibuster.”

    The deal, Kapur reports would make “very modest changes,” such as permitting the “majority to bypass a filibuster on the motion to proceed to debate – if a group of senators on each side agree or if there’s a guarantee that both sides will bet to offer amendments ….”

    According to Kapur, however, the only “meaningful upside” of the agreement centers on nominations – apparently part of the deal would include “an expedited process for some nominations ….”

    The filibuster has been used to scuttle dozens of judicial nominations, which have helped lead to a high vacancy rate on the federal bench. The filibuster, however, has also been used to shut down consideration of an array of progressive measures, such as ones addressing pay inequity, immigration reform and climate change.

    In a Jan. 21 editorial, The New York Times raised concerns that on the cusp “an opportunity to end much of this delay and abuse, Democrats are instead considering only a few half-measures.” The Times highlighted reform proposals advanced by Merkley and Udall, which would require senators to take action to mount and sustain a filibuster. It would require senators bent on slowing consideration of legislation or nominations to actually announce their reason for doing so, and then continue explaining those reasons. As the newspaper noted the proposal would kill the “current practice of routinely requiring a 60-vote majority for a bill through a silent objection ….”

  • December 5, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Filibuster reform is needed because Senate Republicans have gone over a cliff of some sort, using the tool in an unprecedented manner to thwart consideration of significant legislation and, of course, scuttle or delay some judicial nominations.

    At People For Blog, Paul nails Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) for his wildly misleading blather about the filibuster. Pointing to Grassley’s Dec. 3 statement on supposedly “setting the record straight” on consideration of judicial nominations during lame-duck sessions, Paul notes that the senator avoided the “topic completely,” and instead crowed about his party’s generosity for voting on at least one nominee during the lame-duck Congress. Grassley claimed in his statement that it is rare for the Senate to confirm judges during lame-duck sessions in presidential election years. “Republicans have been more than fair to this President and his judicial nominations,” Grassley’s statement reads.

    Beyond misleading, Grassley’s statement is disingenuous. Senate Republicans have been anything but generous to President Obama. Instead they have used the threat of filibuster and other delaying tactics to slow the pace of confirmations. Their actions have led to a federal bench with more than 80 vacancies, many of them considered judicial emergencies. (See JudicialNominations.org for more on the crisis surrounding the federal courts.)  

    The blockade of judges, as Paul notes, has also created “a huge backlog” of nominees to confirm. This week the Senate has confirmed two of the 19 nominations left pending when it recessed in August for campaigning. The Senate confirmed Paul Grimm, for a seat on the district court in Maryland and Michael P. Shea for a district court seat in Connecticut. Both nominees cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee months ago. That means up-or-down votes on those nominees and the 17 others in a functioning Senate should have occurred months ago. Republicans, however, may have wanted to stall those nominations in hopes that their party would capture the White House and fill the vacancies with right-wing judges.