Setting aside the flaming dirigible that is Obamacare, the big news out of Washington heading into the Thanksgiving holiday is that Democrats have finally made good on their threat to eliminate the filibuster for judicial and executive branch appointments. For the last few years, Senate majority leader Harry Reid, with enthusiastic support from the liberal base, had been threatening to strip the minority party in the upper chamber of this important power. Senator John McCain led a valiant and unsuccessful last-ditch effort to preserve the rule and is now worried that the change will “strain relations enormously.” He’s not wrong about that. Essentially, the Senate is evolving from a legislative body of traditions and rules to one where the exercise of raw political power reigns.
There are many reasons why the change is problematic. But let’s take a moment to examine the extent of the hypocrisy involved in this decision, which even by the standards of Swamp City is exceptional. As a historical matter, it’s generally acknowledged that judicial and executive appointments were, with few exceptions, a matter of relative comity until Democrats definitively embraced scorched-earth tactics to torpedo Robert Bork’s 1987 Supreme Court appointment and hold up Clarence Thomas’s appointment.
Things went downhill from there until 2005, when Republicans were so fed up with the Senate minority’s holding up George W. Bush’s appointments that the GOP actually proposed ending the filibuster. Reid, who was then the Senate minority leader, called the attempt to eliminate the filibuster at that time “un-American” and “illegal.” His office issued at least seven press releases decrying the move.
Of course, the GOP never followed through with their threat to eliminate the filibuster. Democrats seized control of the Senate in the 2006 election, at which point Reid only ramped up obstructionist tactics. He even took the unusual move of holding 30-second “pro-forma” sessions through the Thanksgiving holiday in 2007 to prevent the president from making recess appointments. At that point, the Democrat-controlled Senate hadn’t moved on approving a backlog of some 190 Bush nominees. In 2009, Reid actually wrote in his autobiography, “A filibuster is the minority’s way of not allowing the majority to shut off debate, and without robust debate, the Senate is crippled.” If the Senate has now been crippled, Reid has only himself to blame.
Despite all of this, we’re supposed to believe that Republican filibustering in recent years is somehow unprecedented and that Republicans alone are abusing Senate rules and procedures.
The real motivation for this filibuster maneuvering seems to be one of simple timing. Democrats are currently desperate for anything that will move the conversation away from Obamacare’s spectacular failures. Enabling Obama’s attempts at packing the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is responsible for ruling on federal regulation, is an added bonus.
While Republicans aren’t happy about the move, so far they haven’t taken the Democrats’ bait. Reid was likely hoping angry Republicans would drag the press corps into covering an arcane intraparty spat about congressional rules with little immediate relevance outside the Beltway. This would be a needed respite for Democrats who don’t want to talk about Obamacare. But so far, the GOP has—for once—displayed impressive message discipline.
“[Reid] may just as well have said, ‘If you like the rules of the Senate, you can keep them,’ ” Republican leader Mitch McConnell remarked. “Just the way so many Democrats in the administration and Congress now believe that Obamacare is good enough for their constituents, but then when it comes to them, their political allies, their staff, well, of course, that’s different.”