Harry Reid Reaps What He Sowed

The failure to reform the filibuster is already taking a toll

by Timothy Noah | March 19, 2013

photo credit: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

In January, at the start of the current Senate session, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid reached a compromise with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on filibusters. I won’t even bother explaining how it worked because it was so obviously worthless, just as the compromise the two reached two years earlier was worthless. How do I know it was worthless? Because there have already been seven cloture votes in the 113th Congress. (Cloture votes are a rough proxy for filibusters.) Senate floor votes in this Congress didn’t even start until January 24 because of a delay in reaching the latest (worthless) filibuster compromise. So that works out to about one filibuster per week.

The nomination of Richard Cordray, which the Senate banking committee sent to the floor over the opposition of every Republican on the committee, will occasion an eighth cloture vote—one expected to fail—assuming Reid has the heart to bring it to a vote at all. As Steve Benen recently pointed out, eight cloture votes is twice as many as the Senate held between 1947 and 1960. Coming up behind Cordray is Tom Perez, President Obama’s nominee to be secretary of labor, whose principal disqualification appears to be an interest in enforcing the nation’s labor and civil rights laws.

Abuse of the filibuster is part of a larger pattern of obstruction by the Republican minority. For example, Elissa Cadish, a Nevada state judge, earlier this month withdrew her nomination to the federal bench after waiting a year for her Senate confirmation hearings even to begin. They were blocked by Senator Dean Heller, a Republican from Nevada, who was offended that, prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008, Cadish had rejected the notion that the Second Amendment guaranteed a right to bear arms. Guns are sort of a theme this year in Republican obstruction; another judicial nominee, Caitlin Halligan, was filibustered a couple of weeks ago because once, when she was working for the New York attorney general, she signed a brief proposing that gun manufacturers be held liable for gun violence. As Jeffrey Toobin noted recently in the New Yorker, five years into his presidency, Barack Obama has yet to make a single appointment to the D.C. Circuit, which currently has only seven of its 11 seats filled.

In the past, Democrats have hesitated to push through genuine filibuster reform (or elimination) on the grounds that it would provoke a revolt from Republicans, who would then proceed to use every other means at their disposal to obstruct floor action. At this point, though, one has to ask: How on earth could the GOP be doing more to block action than it’s doing right now?

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