The U. S. Senate changed the rules today on cloture (the shutting off of debate) in the case of executive and judicial nominations, excepting nominees to the Supreme Court. Now it takes only 51 votes (a simple majority) to end debate on a nomination from the President and force a vote. The U. S. Constitution calls for the Senate to advise and consent on presidential nominations by majority vote, but Senate rules allow a minority to stop or delay any action by interminable debate (the filibuster).
The occasion for the rules change was the appointment of three judges to the DC Circuit Court of Appeals. The nominations were made June 4th of this year. All the committee work was done, but Republicans threatened to block a confirmation vote on the three. Barack Obama claimed at the announcement of the three last June, that his judicial appointments were taking three times as long as those for his predecessor. Politifact.com rated that statement “half true.” They wrote as part of a lengthy analysis:
Where Obama has a point is if you measure the time from the point of committee approval to confirmation — in other words, the period when the nomination is on the Senate floor, where it can be filibustered [it was 4 times as long].
Certainly news headlines like Time magazine’s “Senators Vow Confirmation Delays for Key Obama Posts” make it seem that the Republicans were playing unfairly when they wouldn’t vote on a nomination to the Federal Reserve until they got more information on Benghazi.
In fact, for executive appointments, President Obama has been slow to make them, and the Senate has been slow to confirm them, leading to some serious problems at some agencies.
I think that the President should have the power to govern and that includes making executive and judicial appointments. The Constitution only says that the Senate must advise and consent to those nominations, not that a supermajority must consent. I’ve never been comfortable with filibusters, even when my party was in the minority. There are some extraordinary situations in our history where it was the right thing to do, but in the present Congress, the threat of filibuster is everywhere. It disenfranchises me when the President I voted for can’t fill vacancies in the executive and judicial branches.
So what does this have to do with Obama conspiracy theories? The answer is that many characters we see in the Obama conspiracy story, including all of the federal judges, are presidential appointees. Just today, Republicans are complaining about “court packing” in the DC Court of Appeals, where key decisions on the Affordable Care Act could be made. Birthers say that there are no honest judges to be found. Well, Obama has the chance to appoint some new ones now.
- Congressional Research Service report: “President Obama’s First-Term U.S. Circuit and District Court Nominations: An Analysis and Comparison with Presidents Since Reagan”
- Pro Publica: Under Obama more appointments go unfilled
- Washington Post: Obama should appoint agency watchdogs now
Obama responds to Senate rules change (video)
In preparation for this story, I learned quite a bit beyond the headlines I knew on the issue. Obama has been slow to make appointments, and the Senate has delayed uncontroversial nominees. There is blame to go around. I think this rules change is for the good.