While it appeared Senate Republicans and Democrats were going to reach a compromise over long-stranded Obama nominees for three key positions, the real heart of the dysfunction lies with abuse of filibuster rules that still need changing.
Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid had threatened to change some of the Senate’s filibuster rules for some nominees to require only a simple majority vote, not the traditional 60 to avoid a filibuster. With Democrats holding a 54-46 majority, the change in rules would allow nominees for labor secretary (Tom Perez), head of the EPA (Gina McCarthy) and head of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (Richard Cordray) to be approved.
All nominations have been held up for political reasons. In the case of Cordray, Republicans have stymied the nomination even though many approve of him personally. The politics behind it are driven by Republicans’ disagreement with the law itself that created the consumer protection agency as part of the response to the financial meltdown of 2008. Some don’t believe it sits well with their constituents on Wall Street.
Senate historians are hard-pressed to come up with another instance where a nominee was blocked because some didn’t like the law rather than opposition to a specific person.
Clearly, the filibuster rules are being abused. Senators no longer have to actually perform a filibuster by talking for hours and hours to force action. Now, one only has to threaten to filibuster. During Reid’s six years as majority leader, there have been 413 such threats, some on nominees or even minor legislation that had bipartisan support.
By comparison, Lyndon Johnson only faced one filibuster in six years as majority leader.
We think most Americans would be willing to take even a small change in rules no one really understands in exchange for a little more getting done in the Senate and in Washington.
Some argue that changing the rules would create even more political infighting and more dysfunction. If Democrats restrict the ability of Republicans to filibuster, Republicans would put even more restrictions on Democrats should the GOP come to power.
That may happen. But it’s hard to imagine the Senate functioning any worse.