Sen. Mitch McConnell

  • October 9, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Adam Lioz. Mr. Lioz is a lawyer and policy advocate who joined the Demos Democracy Program in November 2011. He focuses on litigation to enforce the National Voter Registration Act and end prison-based gerrymandering; and policy advocacy to promote political equality and democratic fairness through safeguarding the right to vote and curbing the influence of big money on the political process.

    Yesterday, in spite of official Washington being on lockdown, the Supreme Court heard oral argument on McCutcheon v. FEC – a case many are referring to as “Citizens United II.”

    The case is a challenge to the total cap on the amount that one wealthy donor can give to all federal candidates, parties, and PACs, known as “aggregate contribution limits.” 

    An Alabama coal industry executive named Shaun McCutcheon (joined by the RNC) thinks that the current $123,200 cap – more than twice what an average family makes in a year – is a burdensome restriction on his political participation.  So, he’s asking the Court to lift the cap, freeing him to kick in more than $3.5 million to Republican candidates and party committees.

    Senator Mitch McConnell, who proudly embraces his reputation as the “Darth Vader of campaign finance reform,” has asked the justices to go further by overturning key parts of the Court’s seminal campaign finance case and striking all contribution limits, including the cap on the amount an individual can give directly to any one candidate (currently $5,200 per election cycle). 

    What’s at stake in the case?  New research from Demos and U.S. PIRG projects that striking aggregate limits would bring more than $1 billion in additional “McCutcheon Money” through the 2020 election cycle, from just slightly more than 1,500 elite donors. 

    This is not a sea change in overall election spending, and much of this money may be shifted from Super PACs to candidates and parties. But, it will continue to shift the balance of power from average citizens to a tiny minority of wealthy donors. And, who are these wealthy donors?  In a nutshell, they don’t look like the rest of the country, but rather are avatars of what Public Campaign calls “Country Club Politics.”

  • July 11, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) may be nearing a vote to alter procedures around the filibuster, which Senate Republicans have used over and over again to kill consideration of major legislation and seriously delay or scuttle President Obama’s nominations to the federal bench and to executive branch openings. For that matter, as former Labor Secretary Robert Reich recently wrote the Senate Republicans “have filibustered almost everything, betting that voters will blame Democrats for the dysfunction in the Congress as much as they blame the GOP.”

    Reid, according to The New York Times is considering asking his Democratic peers in the Senate to vote to “take the exceptional step of barring the minority party from filibustering presidential appointees.” The report continues, however, that such action would not “affect filibusters of legislation or judicial nominees.” At the moment there are still more than 80 vacancies on the federal bench. The vacancies have hovered at 80 or above for years now. (See JudicialNominations.org for more information about the vacancies.)  

    Yesterday, during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Republicans signaled they were preparing to delay or block President’s Obama’s nominees to the U.S. Court of appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

    Earlier this year Reid, after threatening a similar action on the filibuster, instead entered into an agreement with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that has been widely panned as ineffective.

    Reid, from the Senate floor, blasted McConnell for failing to adhere to the modest agreement. “Exactly three weeks after Senator McConnell committed to process nominees consistent with the norms and traditions of the Senate, he led Republicans in an unprecedented filibuster of a highly qualified nominee for Secretary of Defense,” Reid said. “Nothing could be a starker violation of a commitment to return to the norms and traditions of the Senate than launching the first-ever filibuster of a Secretary of Defense.”

    Reid ticked off other executive branch and federal agency positions that Republicans are stalling or threatening to block, such as nominations to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Labor.

  • July 2, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Senate Republicans’ agenda of delaying or scuttling judicial nominations has had a particularly corrosive impact on the U.S. District Courts where there are currently 65 vacancies. A July 2 report from the Brennan Center for Justice reveals the large number of vacancies has stayed consistent for five consecutive years for the first time in 20 years.

    Brennan Center Counsel Alicia Bannon in a statement about the report said, “Our trial courts are in trouble. As seats remain unfilled, millions of Americans who rely on district courts are being denied the justice they deserve. District courts can no longer wait. The president and the Senate must find a way to fill these crucial seats. The report, authored by Bannon, also finds that “average caseload in 2009-2012 was 13 percent higher than the average for the preceding four years. Had all vacancies been filled between 2009 and 2012, judges would have had an average of 42 fewer pending cases each year.”

    The larger caseloads are hampering the ability of district courts nationwide to dispense justice, but are having, the report says, an even greater burden on districts where judicial emergencies exist. “Analysis shows that judicial emergencies – a designation of districts with an acute need for judges – have been higher in 2010-2012 than at any other point since 2002,” the Brennan Center notes.

    The report cites several factors that “likely account for the unusually high and sustained level of district court vacancies since 2009. District courts experienced an atypically large number of retirements during the first three years of the Obama presidency, leading to a surge in the number open seats, while at the same time, fewer total district court nominees were confirmed during President Obama’s first term than in other recent administrations. Nominees also faced record wait times from nomination to confirmation in the Senate as compared to other recent administrations, and the President trailed his predecessors with respect to the number of judges nominated during his first three years in office. Finally, many home state senators have been slow to recommend nominees to the President, particularly in states with two Republican senators, which has delayed the process of identifying the nominees.”

    Other reports have shown that Obama has long since picked up the pace of putting forth nominees, but Senate Republicans have not altered their agenda of obstruction. Republicans led by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have not only continued to slow-walk the president’s judicial nominations, they are holding up his nominations to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Labor, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and nominations to the five-member National Labor Relations Board. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has even pushed a measure to cut the number of judgeships on the powerful U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.  

  • May 28, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Some beltway pundits have long-pleaded with the Obama administration to “flood-the zone,” Washington-speak – in this instance – for making a lot more nominations all at once to the federal bench.

    These pundits may have a bit to celebrate if President Obama puts forth three nominations to vacant seats on the 11-member U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, as The New York Times reports may happen soon. That Court noted here often, is one of the more powerful among the appeals circuit courts, in part, because of the myriad and weighty constitutional concerns it rules on, many of which center on federal regulations. As The Times and many others have pointed out the D.C. Circuit has tilted rightward, thanks in part to the fact that an overwhelming majority of its senior judges are Republican-appointees. The Times noted the D.C. Circuit “has overturned major parts of the president’s agenda in the last four years, on regulations covering Wall Street, the environment, tobacco, labor unions and workers’ rights.”

    The Times reports that the potential nominees -- the White House would not comment on nominations not yet made – include three “experienced lawyers who would be unlikely to generate controversy individually.”

    But Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) despite their protestations to the contrary have worked to stall or scuttle too many of the president’s judicial and executive branch nominations. The D.C. Circuit, at the moment is a business friendly outfit, recently issuing an opinion undermining the workers’ rights, is especially important to both leaders. Last month as Senate Judiciary Committee was conducting its hearing on Sri Srinivasan, the only Obama nominee to be confirmed the Court (finally), Grassley introduced a bill that would eliminate three judgeships on the D.C. Circuit and transfer them to the other circuit courts. In part Grassley argued that the D.C. Circuit’s caseload is light and other circuits need the judgeships more. Grassley’s effort has been blasted by the Constitutional Accountability Center’s Judith E. Schaeffer as a “ploy to give cover to Senate Republicans who have no intention of letting a Democratic president fill those three vacancies on the D.C. Circuit.”

    The right-wing editorialists at The Wall Street Journal lauded Grassley’s effort saying President Obama, upset with the D.C. Circuit’s rulings, was aiming to “pack” the Court with judges to alter its ideological make-up.

    Russell Wheeler, an expert on federal courts, disagreed in an ACSblog post, citing a 1996 speech by the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist in which he noted the right of presidents to place their imprints on the judiciary. Rehnquist, Wheeler wrote, said, “When vacancies occur … on any of the federal courts, replacements are nominated by the President, who has been elected by the people of the entire nation, and subject to confirmation by the Senate, whose members have been elected by the people of their respective states. Both the President and the Senate have felt free to take into consideration the likely judicial philosophy of federal judges.”

  • May 22, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-K.Y.), the chamber’s ringleader of obstruction of Obama nominations, particularly judicial ones, is whining about the possibility of Senate action that could hobble an integral tool of obstructionists – the filibuster.

    But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (R-Nev.) has tried to work with McConnell on this matter before and wound up with a pretty weak deal, one that McConnell would subsequently mock. Earlier in the year the two reached an agreement that was supposed to help move along some of Obama’s nominations to the federal bench, especially those to the U.S. District Courts. Since then, however, Republicans appear ready to scuttle the nominations of Thomas Perez to head the Labor Department and Gina McCarthy to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. For good measure the Senate obstructionists are also seeking to prevent the administration from filling all the vacant seats on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and blocking the president’s selections to fill vacancies on the National Labor Relations Board.

    In a press statement, Reid signaled he may be ready to push for a majority vote to alter the filibuster to help change the status quo in Congress, which is gridlock. Reid noted, as many others have for some time now, that McConnell and his cohorts have changed the rules of the Senate by demanding supermajority votes to consider legislation and increasingly to kill judicial and executive branch nominations.

    Reid said:

    Due to Republican obstruction, the de facto threshold for too many nominees to be confirmed has risen from a simple majority to a supermajority of 60 votes. On judicial nominees, Republicans’ obstruction is equally unprecedented. The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service confirms that President Obama is the only president in the last three decades whose highly qualified nominees have been forced to wait more than half a year from nomination to confirmation. There is no reason to delay qualified nominees for so long except delay itself, and it is little wonder we have a judicial vacancy crisis in this country.

    McConnell took to the Senate floor, TPM”s Sahil Kapur reports, to claim that Reid’s talk of reforming the filibuster amounted to intimidation. “Their view is that you had better confirm the people we want, when we want them, or we’ll break the rules of the Senate to change to the rules so you can’t stop us,” he said.

    It’s of course McConnell and his gang who have changed the rules. Their Party failed to win enough seats to control the Senate and lost a bid to take the White House. So they’re continuing their mission to obstruct, delay and start again. Reid is the one on solid ground here. Senate Republicans and their counterparts in the House of Representatives like things just the way they are.