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Commentary: Mixed emotions over Senate rule changes

by on November 26, 2013 10:20 AM

It’s easy to have mixed emotions about the change in Senate rules that overturns the filibuster employed to block most presidential nominees.

On the one hand, requiring 60 votes instead of a simple majority to confirm judges and executive branch nominees has produced a backlog that has denied the chief executive the right to name those he chooses for major jobs as long as they are qualified and have nothing in their backgrounds that would cast doubt on their trustworthiness. On the other hand, doing away with the rule also could lead to abuses of power.

The considerable overuse of the filibuster by Republican opponents in what appears to be a concerted effort to thwart the will of the electorate by preventing Barack Obama from carrying out his second term agenda is shabby policy and has led to the change.

It has left large holes in the capability of the judiciary and done considerable violence to good governance. Furthermore, it has been part and parcel of the partisan warfare that has paralyzed the Congress.

There are 189 executive nominees awaiting confirmation, 85 for cabinet -level agencies. Obama nominees have had to wait nearly 100 days longer for Senate approval than did those named by Bush. While Democratic leaders concede there are still hurdles, they believe the rule change will speed things up somewhat. Top priority will be given to nominees Jeh Johnson as Homeland Security Secretary, Janet Yellen to chair the Federal Reserve and Mel Watt to run the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

In addition three highly prized nominations to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia that have been stalled will be acted on quickly. Republicans opposed to these nominees contend among other things there are enough judges on that important court where members often are among those considered for elevation to the Supreme Court. There are eight sitting judges and six senior jurists now with four having been appointed by Republicans and four by Democrats. Five of the six senior judges were named by Republicans.

Enthusiasm for the rule change, however, should be tempered by the knowledge that there have been times when unfit presidential nominees were legitimately derailed in the wake of highly publicized revelations. And that there is a good chance that the move will harden the partisan battle lines.

Irate Republican leaders have warned that what goes around comes around if they gain control the Senate in next year’s mid-term elections, which may be less of a long shot than it was given Obama’s dropping approval rating. Some GOP said that under those circumstances they might even try to expand the filibuster ban to include legislation to repeal Obamacare. The House has adopted bills to do that twice only to see them fail in the Senate. Although the election is a year away, fallout over the act’s massively confused start-up have improved the GOP position.

All this adds up to a Congress that most analysts believe if not utterly broken is at best dysfunctional. Who can argue considering the record of ineffectualness of the last decade?

Congress hasn’t passed an appropriations bill in years; it regularly bases its decisions on what is good for its members and not for the rest of the country; it has the most dismal approval ratings of any public institution; its leadership is among the weakest in our history, kowtowing to ideologically motivated elements in the caucuses of the two parties . That’s only for starters.

Democratic leaders committed a major legislative sin by allowing a bill that impacts 18 percent of the economy (health care) to be adopted without one single Republican vote. That alone produced a seismic crack in the body politic that has dominated the domestic agenda since the first year of the Obama presidency. The inexperienced president was so intent in achieving what his predecessors couldn’t, or had the good sense not to, that he let it happen. He has demonstrated without a doubt that he didn’t even know what was in the bill.

So now we have his party’s leaders trying to pull the proverbial irons out of the fire with an internal policy change to eliminate a pile-up of the bodies he says he needs to run the nation but that Republicans have denied him. He and his fellow Democrats are betting that this decision won’t come back to bite them in the rump. I wouldn’t be too sure.



Dan Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, which distributes his column.
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