During his first five years in office, President Obama faced unprecedented obstruction of routine executive and judicial nominations: sixteen executive branch nominees were filibustered, compared with twenty throughout US history.
Senate majority leader Harry Reid has faced more than 400 filibusters since Democrats took control of the Senate; Lyndon Johnson, as majority leader, faced exactly one.
The extent and nature of this obstruction was undemocratic: the filibuster allowed the minority party unique power to halt the agenda of an elected president and majority party. George Washington is said to have called the Senate the “cooling saucer of democracy” because of its deliberative structure, but it was never meant to be an icebox.
On November 21—after years of protest and organization by progressives in and out of Congress—Reid pulled the so-called nuclear trigger and eliminated the sixty-vote threshold on executive and judicial nominees. This would have been appropriate even if it were majority leader Mitch McConnell clearing the way for a President Romney’s nominees. But there was of course a reason that Senate rules reform was a key priority for progressives. The filibuster was one more tool in the GOP’s belt—along with voting restrictions and truckloads of dark corporate money—for wielding power it is increasingly unable to wield through democratic means.
This past summer, not long after a stinging rebuke in the 2012 elections, Senate Republicans were still able to stop Obama from enacting much of the agenda he ran on. They had already blocked Richard Cordray’s nomination as permanent head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, denying the bureau vital powers that could be exercised only with a director in place. The GOP also kept seats on the National Labor Relations Board empty, and kept Obama from having a permanent director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms—something it lacked for seven years, dating to the Bush administration, thanks to a filibuster backed by the National Rifle Association.
Republicans allowed those nominations to go through when Reid threatened to go nuclear in July, but the stalemate returned, coming to a head this fall when the GOP nixed nominations to the DC federal appeals court. Here the long-term stakes are high: the administration’s carbon emission regulations are sure to come before the court, as will much of Dodd-Frank financial reform and large parts of the Affordable Care Act. It’s the last shot (before the Supreme Court) for the GOP and its backers to thwart these laws.
Thus, a coalition of labor groups, like the Communications Workers of America, together with green groups like the Sierra Club, helped organize public support for a rules change, as liberal Senate stalwarts like Jeff Merkley, Tom Harkin and Tom Udall pushed their reluctant colleagues. The result was one of the more sweeping progressive organizing victories of Obama’s second term.
But problems remain. It’s still true that virtually no nonbudgetary legislation can get through the Senate without a super-majority. If the Democrats win the House in 2014, that will pose a big problem for progressive politics. Recall that the version of the ACA passed by the House contained a public option, stripped out in the Senate during horse-trading to reach sixty votes.
But the real point of reform is not to advance progressive causes but democracy. It should be possible to enact the policies candidates ran and were elected on. So reformers must push on. As Merkley says, “Let no one think our work is finished.”
John Nichols has been writing about GOP obstructionism—via the filibuster—for quite some time, including earlier this year, when he wrote about how workers and unions were suffering because of the legislative end run.