Journalist Andrew Cohen, writing for the Brennan Center for Justice, explains how attempts to portray today’s Republican filibusters as routine “tit-for-tat” maneuvers are misleading:
By trying not to be partisan, at least in this area of political coverage, we journalists are in many ways becoming more partisan than we fear. James Fallows, the author and longtime correspondent at The Atlantic, has been preaching for years now about “false equivalence” in reporting about the Senate’s current gridlock. He has called out reporters and editors, producers and television hosts, headline writers and analysts, for their continuing failure to call it like it really is when it comes to these Senate votes. For example, on Wednesday, in the wake of the background check vote, which “passed” the Senate by a vote of 54-46 but effectively “failed” because of the threat of a filibuster, Fallows again explained the concept. He wrote:
Since the Democrats regained majority control of the Senate six years ago, the Republicans under Mitch McConnell have applied filibuster threats (under a variety of names) at a frequency not seen before in American history. Filibusters used to be exceptional. Now they are used as blocking tactics for nearly any significant legislation or nomination. The goal of this strategy, which maximizes minority blocking power in a way not foreseen in the Constitution, has been to make the 60-vote requirement seem routine. As part of the "making it routine" strategy, the minority keeps repeating that it takes 60 votes to "pass" a bill — and this Orwellian language-redefinition comes one step closer to fulfillment each time the press presents 60 votes as the norm for passing a law.
News consumers, in other words, are led to believe that what is happening is just “politics as usual,” tit-for-tat, part of the murky vote-counting calculus that has always been a part of the Senate’s rules. But there is now ample evidence to suggest that this tactic has fundamentally changed the way Congress works. In 2009 alone, the Brennan Center’s Diana Kasdan told me last week, “there was double the number of filibusters that occurred in the entire 20-year period from 1950-1969, when they were used repeatedly and notoriously to block civil rights legislation.” In other words, today’s abuse of the filibuster is extraordinary. Yet Fallows gives many examples — actual headlines, probably hundreds of them over the years — in which journalists have refused or failed to properly communicate this to their audience. Without adequate context and perspective about what is happening in the Senate, the American people are hampered in how quickly they can force their elected officials to change (or, more accurately, to change their elected officials).
In fact, as we have reported here, today’s GOP has taken Senate obstruction to an extraordinary new level.
Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee holds a hearing on the nomination of Sri Srinivasan to sit on the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Srinivasan, who was first nominated ten months ago yet is just now receiving a hearing, is the latest Obama judicial nominee caught in the web of Senate obstruction. Last month, Republicans blocked the nomination of Caitlin Halligan to a seat on the same court, despite her impeccable qualifications and strong bipartisan backing. Some important facts to keep in mind during and after today’s hearing:
Our federal courts are suffering because of entrenched Republican obstruction. Because of both public and silent Republican filibusters, President Obama’s appeals court nominees have been forced to wait an average of 153 days between Judiciary Committee approval and a yes-or-no vote from the Senate. At this point in Bush’s presidency, the average wait for confirmed appeals court nominees was just 37 days. The foot-dragging is unrelated to who the nominee is – even consensus nominees with the strong support of their Republican home-state senators have been forced to wait for months through active or silent filibusters before the Senate is finally allowed to hold a confirmation vote. This pointless obstruction, which is echoed at the district court level, has led to persistently high vacancy rates and longer waits for Americans seeking their day in court.
WASHINGTON – The Senate confirmed Judge Patty Shwartz of New Jersey to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in a 64 to 34 vote today, over one year after her nomination was sent to the Senate floor for a vote. Marge Baker, Executive Vice President of People For the American Way, released the following statement:
“The absurd delay of Patty Shwartz’s confirmation is emblematic of a Republican Party determined to obstruct the American people’s business at all costs. Judge Shwartz is indisputably qualified and supported by New Jersey’s legal leaders and elected officials from both parties, including Gov. Christie and both of the state’s U.S. senators. The only thing stopping the Senate from voting on her nomination was a 13-month Republican silent filibuster supported by flimsy excuses.
“The delay in confirming Judge Shwartz is sadly not unusual. President Obama’s confirmed circuit court nominees have been forced to wait an average of 153 days from Judiciary Committee approval to floor vote. By contrast, George W. Bush’s circuit court nominees at this point in his presidency waited an average of just 37 days. This deliberate slow-walking of nominees is obstructing Senate business, exacerbating a vacancy crisis in our federal courts, and deterring highly qualified individuals from putting themselves forward to serve on the federal bench.
“This summer, two more Third Circuit judgeships will become vacant. We hope that Senate Republicans will allow these vacancies to be filled in a timely manner.”
WASHINGTON – An effort to end the Republican filibuster of DC Circuit Court of Appeals nominee Caitlin Halligan fell short in a 51-41 vote in the Senate today.
Marge Baker, Executive Vice President of People For the American Way, issued the following statement:
“Senate Republicans have once again decided to put their own partisan interests above the will of American voters and the health of our system of justice. Caitlin Halligan is an exceptionally qualified, widely respected and unquestionably mainstream nominee. But a minority of U.S. senators, egged on by conservative activists and a party leadership with their own narrow agendas, have cherry-picked and misrepresented her record in order to keep her off the federal bench.
“Let’s call the filibuster of Halligan what it is: a politically-motivated attempt to keep President Obama’s nominee off the second highest court in the country. Four years into Obama’s presidency, more than one-third of the DC Circuit’s seats are vacant and the president has yet to have a single nominee confirmed to the court. In the meantime, the court continues to be dominated by far-right Republican-appointed judges who have pushed an extreme right-wing agenda on issues including environmental protection, workers’ rights and public health. This is not a coincidence.
“The American people have twice elected President Obama, yet a minority of U.S. senators continues to place a stranglehold on his judicial nominees. This has not only damaged our federal courts, which are facing an ongoing vacancy crisis, but has hurt the credibility of the U.S. Senate. Americans deserve better than this destructive, politically-motivated gridlock.”
Today the Senate held its first vote on a judicial nominee for a Circuit Court since June 2012. William J. Kayatta, Jr. of Maine was confirmed as U.S. Circuit Judge for the First Circuit Court of Appeals by an 88-12 vote during today’s session. Despite broad bipartisan support and the support of his state’s senators in both the 112th and 113th Congresses, Kayatta faced ten months of unnecessary delays.
“We applaud Majority Leader Reid for his leadership in pressing for today’s vote,” said Marge Baker, Executive Vice President of People For the American Way. “We hope that this will be a turning point signaling a shift toward more timely confirmations for judicial nominees. This needless stalling – and during a time of unprecedented judicial vacancies – has gone on for far too long. The bottom line is that Americans need a functioning system of justice. They have grown weary with reckless obstruction.”