Harry Reid speaks at a press conference in Washington on June 5, 2009. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Harry Reid threatened to employ the “nuclear option” to end filibuster abuses, and the world did not end.
In fact, despite all the absurd rhetoric that flew around as the Senate majority leader prepared to implement a majority-rule standard regarding presidential appointments, Reid’s gambit yielded some positive results. Under an agreement reached Tuesday morning, Republicans would stop blocking votes on five key nominations, including those of Richard Cordray to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Gina McCarthy to serve as EPA administrator, Fred Hochberg to serve as president of the Export-Import Bank and Thomas Perez to serve as secretary of labor.
By midday Tuesday, the Senate had already voted to allow formal consideration of Cordray, with seventy-one senators agreeing to schedule a confirmation vote.
But the path to making the Senate a fully functional legislative chamber is less clear than the inside-the-Beltway celebrants—some in the Senate, most in the media—would have Americans believe.
As part of the compromise, Republicans appear to have secured veto power over the nominations of two qualified nominees for the National Labor Relations Board, Sharon Block and Richard Griffin. Republicans have been determined to keep Block and Griffin off the board since President Obama’s decision to use his recess-appointment power to put them there provoked a bitter court fight. Under Tuesday’s deal in the Senate, Obama would withdraw the nominations of Block and Griffin and send two nominees to the Senate for quick consideration and votes. (Under the agreement, Republicans will allow a third NLRB nominee, Mark Pearce, to get a straight up-or-down confirmation vote.)
What this means is that virulently anti-labor Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, is still calling some shots when it comes to the NLRB, and that’s absurdly unfair to Block and Griffin. Labor leaders, such as Communications Workers of America union President Larry Cohen,were angered by the move. Cohen complained that Block and Griffin were “definitely tossed under the bus.”
“There is not one intellectual argument…[for] why those nominations shouldn’t go forward. It’s just [that Republicans] want their pound of flesh from working people in this country, and this is where they’re going to get it because they were able to convince four or five Democrats to go with them,” griped Cohen.
The determination of McConnell to continue meddling with NLRB nominations should be cause for caution, and strategic common sense.
Reid should not back away from the “nuclear option”—using the Democratic majority to rewrite Senate rules to allow for majority-rule votes on confirmation of presidential nominees—anytime soon.
If the agreement on the NLRB nominees advances, the White House must nominate two new candidates immediately. The Senate Committee on Heath, Education, Labor and Pensions must hold hearings and a full Senate vote must be scheduled and completed before the Senate begins its August recess. A failure to complete the process in a timely manner threatens the functionality of the board, which would be a huge victory for McConnell and a huge defeat for the tens of millions of American workers who look to the agency not merely to make decisions regarding the role of unions in the workplace but also to decide whether corporations are using unfair labor practices to threaten the rights of workers.
As the Communication Workers of America have explained as part of their “Give Us Five” campaign to get a full NLRB confirmed by the Senate, “If the Senate does not move forward with a majority vote on President Obama’s bipartisan nominees to the National Labor Relations Board, we’ll soon be celebrating Labor Day without any labor law. And that means no protections for 80 million American workers in the private sector.”
It is that prospect that Reid must avert by keeping all options for Senate rules reform on the table.
The bottom line is that filibuster reform is necessary, not just to renew the confirmation process but for the purpose of legislating. As Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, said after details of Tuesday’s agreement took shape, “This trend to abuse and misuse the filibuster clearly should be addressed by an effort to change the rules. I’m hopeful that we will push ahead, that in fact the effort will not end here,”
Blumenthal is right.
Unfortunately, Reid has continually attempted to avert the reality of reform by cutting deals with McConnell and other Republican senators. The majority leader’s compromises on the issue have—as Reid now acknowledges—frequently fumbled.
In an ideal circumstance, Reid and his Democratic colleagues—as well as some responsible Republicans—would understand the value of meaningful rules reforms, which would restore the traditional filibuster along lines that Americans know best from the film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
The point of filibuster reform is not partisan or ideological positioning. It is to restore functional processes for legislating and governing.
At this point, like it or not, Reid is holding to the view that he can cobble together agreements to achieve that goal. Savvy senators such as Vermont independent Bernie Sanders and Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley are highly dubious, as they have indicated.
But one thing that Reid and every member of his caucus should be able to agree on is this: the option of a quick vote to reform Senate rules in order to advance nominations should not be taken off the table during the coming wrangle over the future of the NLRB.
In fact, it should not be taken off the table for so long as Mitch McConnell, whose regard for the president and the legislative process is almost as low as the approval ratings for Congress, continues to seek what Sanders refers to as “the tyranny of the minority.”
“While [Tuesday’s deal addresses] an immediate need for the president of the United States to have his Cabinet and other senior officials confirmed, we should be clear that the agreement only addresses one symptom of a seriously dysfunctional U.S. Senate,” explained Sanders on Tuesday afternoon. “The issue that now must be addressed is how we create a process in the Senate which allows us to respond to the very serious needs of the American people in a timely and effective way. The United States Senate cannot function with any degree of effectiveness if a super-majority of 60 votes is needed to pass virtually any piece of legislation and huge amounts of time are wasted eating up the clock with parliamentary tactics meant only to delay for delay’s sake. Now is the time for real Senate rules reform.”
John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney are the authors of the new book Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America (The Nation). Author Thomas Frank says: “This is the black book of politics-as-industry, an encyclopedic account of money’s crimes against democracy. The billionaires have hijacked our government, and anyone feeling complacent after the 2012 election should take sober note of Nichols’ and McChesney’s astonishing finding: It’s only going to get worse. Dollarocracy is an impressive achievement.
How long can Mitch McConnell’s “tyranny of the minority” last?