Our View: Senate rules shift necessary to rein in filibuster abuse

November 24, 2013 

The U.S. Senate has taken a significant step back to majority rule. For too long, abuse of the filibuster has blocked qualified public servants from important posts and made a mockery of the Senate’s constitutional role on presidential nominations.

Requiring a 60-vote supermajority to end debate and get an up-or-down vote on a nominee is not “advise and consent.” It is obstructionism, and one cause of the gridlock in our nation’s capital.

While the reform in filibuster rules approved Thursday overturns decades of precedent, it is still limited. The simple majority threshold covers only nominees to the federal courts and to the president’s Cabinet and executive agencies. It does not apply to the U.S. Supreme Court or to substantive legislation.

Elections have consequences. If Republicans want to decide who gets appointed, they need to win the presidency and seize control of the Senate. If Democrats lose their majority, they will have to play by these same new rules.

For most of America’s history, filibusters have been unusual. During the Obama presidency, they have become a key part of the GOP playbook, used routinely and often to push unrelated issues.

That abuse has been “harmful to our democracy” and is “not what our founders intended,” the president told reporters after the 52-48 Senate vote. “Enough is enough,” he declared.

Senate Democrats, led by Harry Reid of Nevada, did not take this move lightly or impatiently.

The final straw was Republicans blocking three Obama nominees in the past three weeks to the powerful U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. It rules on the constitutionality of actions by the White House and federal agencies, and is also often a steppingstone for Supreme Court justices. GOP senators claimed that the D.C. court’s workload didn’t justify adding judges, but by keeping the three seats vacant, they preserved the court’s majority of Republican nominees.

By delaying judicial nominees, Republicans have delayed justice in overburdened federal courts in California and across the country. According to a count this week, there are 75 vacancies in U.S. district courts, a full 11 percent of all seats.

It hasn’t been just judicial nominations. As Obama noted, some 30 of his executive appointments have been filibustered, stalling the agenda that voters endorsed by electing him twice.

For two years, Republicans blocked confirmation for the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, one of the major reforms from the Wall Street meltdown. Trying to blackmail the White House for more information on the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, some GOP senators have even threatened to stand in the way of Janet Yellen, whose nomination as Federal Reserve chairperson was approved Thursday by the Senate Banking Committee.

Republicans can cry foul all they want about what happened Thursday. By exploiting the filibuster far beyond what is reasonable, they have only themselves to blame.

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