After waging an unprecedented campaign of obstructionism against President Obama’s nominees, Republicans are now crying crocodile tears over a rules change that would end the filibuster on certain judicial nominees.
NBC News points out that Republicans are not blocking judicial nominees over “concerns about ideology or qualifications, but over the president’s ability to appoint ANYONE to these vacancies.” This unprecedented blockade leaves Democrats with few options, as dozens of nominees are left unable to receive a simple confirmation vote.
It’s even harder to be sympathetic to Senate Republicans when you remember that just a few years ago, many of the very same Republicans who are today filibustering President Obama’s nominees willy-nilly were vowing that they would never, ever filibuster judicial nominees. Some even declared that judicial filibusters were unconstitutional and un-American.
But that was before there was a Democrat in the White House.
We take a look back at some of the Senate’s most strident opponents of filibustering judicial nominees, turned master obstructers.
1. Mitch McConnell (KY)
“Any President’s judicial nominees should receive careful consideration. But after that debate, they deserve a simple up-or-down vote” (5/19/05).
“Let's get back to the way the Senate operated for over 200 years, up or down votes on the president's nominee, no matter who the president is, no matter who's in control of the Senate” (5/22/05).
2. John Cornyn (TX)
“[F]ilibusters of judicial nominations are uniquely offensive to our nation’s constitutional design” (6/4/03).
“[M]embers of this distinguished body have long and consistently obeyed an unwritten rule not to block the confirmation of judicial nominees by filibuster. But, this Senate tradition, this unwritten rule has now been broken and it is crucial that we find a way to ensure the rule won’t be broken in the future” (6/5/03).
3. Lamar Alexander (TN)
“If there is a Democratic President and I am in this body, and if he nominates a judge, I will never vote to deny a vote on that judge” (3/11/03).
“I would never filibuster any President's judicial nominee. Period” (6/9/05).
4. John McCain (AZ)
“I’ve always believed that [judicial nominees deserve yes-or-no votes]. There has to be extraordinary circumstances to vote against them. Elections have consequences” (6/18/13).
5. Chuck Grassley (IA)
“It would be a real constitutional crisis if we up the confirmation of judges from 51 to 60” (2/11/03).
“[W]e can’t find anywhere in the Constitution that says a supermajority is needed for confirmation” (5/8/05).
6. Saxby Chambliss (GA)
“I believe [filibustering judicial nominees] is in violation of the Constitution” (4/13/05).
7. Lindsey Graham (SC)
“I think filibustering judges will destroy the judiciary over time. I think it’s unconstitutional” (5/23/05).
8. Johnny Isakson (GA)
“I will vote to support a vote, up or down, on every nominee. Understanding that, were I in the minority party and the issues reversed, I would take exactly the same position because this document, our Constitution, does not equivocate” (5/19/05).
9. James Inhofe (OK)
“This outrageous grab for power by the Senate minority is wrong and contrary to our oath to support and defend the Constitution” (3/11/03).
10. Mike Crapo (ID)
“[T]he Constitution requires the Senate to hold up-or-down votes on all nominees” (5/25/05).
11 . Richard Shelby (AL)
“Why not allow the President to do his job of selecting judicial nominees and let us do our job in confirming or denying them? Principles of fairness call for it and the Constitution requires it” (11/12/03).
12. Orrin Hatch (UT)*
Filibustering judicial nominees is “unfair, dangerous, partisan, and unconstitutional” (1/12/05).
*Hatch claims he still opposes filibusters of judicial nominees and often votes “present” instead of “no” on cloture votes. But as Drew noted: “Because ending a filibuster requires 60 ‘yes’ votes, voting ‘present’ is identical to voting ‘no.’ Hatch’s decision to vote ‘present’ is an affirmative decision to continue the filibuster.”
Senate Democrats are looking increasingly serious about the possibility of changing the Senate rules to permit a 51-vote majority to end debate on nominees to the executive branch and lower federal courts – the so-called “nuclear option.” The move would come after Senate Republicans abused the filibuster to block votes on all three of President Obama’s nominees to fill vacancies on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
The D.C. Circuit nominees are among 17 federal judicial nominees currently waiting for Senate floor votes. Thirteen of these have been waiting for three weeks or longer; two have been waiting for over 100 days.
And the blanket filibuster of D.C. Circuit nominees is just the latest in the GOP’s onslaught of unprecedented obstruction under President Obama. Here are four charts showing just how far Republican obstruction has gone in the Obama administration.
Failed to confirm one-quarter of President Obama’s judicial nominees.
At this point in President Bush’s term, the Senate had confirmed 91 percent of his nominees to the lower federal courts. As of today, the Senate has confirmed just 76 percent of President Obama’s nominees. Those left out include the 17 nominees still waiting patiently for yes-or-no confirmation votes, as well as many nominees who have been forced to withdraw their nominations after meeting a wall of GOP obstruction. Unquestionably qualified nominees forced to withdraw their names include D.C. Circuit nominee Caitlin Halligan, Ninth Circuit nominee Goodwin Liu and Nevada District Court nominee Elissa Cadish.
The unconfirmed 26 percent also includes nominees who have met with Republican obstruction before even getting a hearing from the Senate Judiciary Committee. Because committee chairman Patrick Leahy won’t schedule a hearing on a nominee until both of that nominee’s home-state senators return “blue slips” signaling their approval for starting the process, Republicans can hold up the confirmation process before it even starts simply by refusing to return a “blue slip.” One example is Georgia senators Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson’s year-and-a-half-long (and counting) blockade of Eleventh Circuit nominee Jill Pryor, whom they previously found qualified for a district court judgeship.
Stonewalled the D.C. Circuit.
When President Obama nominated three qualified people to the three vacancies on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, Senate Republicans put up a coordinated front of righteous indignation, accusing the president of trying to “pack” the court to “rubber-stamp” his agenda. This act was somewhat hard to believe coming from a party that less than a decade ago successfully pushed to confirm George W. Bush’s nominees to the very same seats. The cries of “court-packing” were also a little bit undermined by the fact that Senate Republicans had allowed just one of President Obama’s nominees to be confirmed to the court, in contrast to four of Bush’s nominees and eight of Reagan’s.
It all made one believe that maybe the goal was to keep the influential court dominated by conservative Republican appointees.
Forced Obama's judicial nominees to wait over twice as long for confirmation votes as Bush’s nominees did.
Senate Republicans have forced even the nominees whom they ultimately confirm to wait weeks or even months just for up-or-down confirmation vote. Since the Senate requires unanimous consent from its members to hold a vote, a single senator can block a vote indefinitely until he is forced to give up or he runs up against a cloture vote. Under President Obama, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has made extraordinary use of these quiet filibusters, sometimes blocking votes on judicial nominees for months, even when (as is the case the overwhelming majority of the time) no Republicans actually oppose the nominees in question.
One example of this was Robert Bacharach of Oklahoma, nominated to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, who was filibustered for nearly nine months despite the fact that both of his conservative home-state senators said they supported him. When Republicans finally allowed Bacharach’s nomination to come to a vote, he was confirmed unanimously.
President Obama’s confirmed nominees to the lower courts have been forced to wait an average of 107 days between approval by the Senate Judiciary Committee and a confirmation vote on the Senate floor. At this point in George W. Bush's presidency, the average wait for his nominees was just 43 days. This escalation has been especially pronounced among district court nominees, who have historically been quickly approved for trial court positions. President Bush’s district court nominees were confirmed in an average of 34 days. Under President Obama, their average wait has nearly tripled to 100 days.
Caused a vacancy crisis on the federal courts.
Senate Republicans often claim the Senate is doing a great job confirming judicial nominees this year. But according to a PFAW fact sheet [pdf], “Since the start of the 113th Congress in January 2013, the confirmation rate has failed to keep up with the number of vacancies,” leading to more than one in ten seats on the federal courts being or soon to become vacant.
Since the start of this Congress, the number of federal judicial seats that are or will soon be vacant has risen from 90 to 110, an increase of more than 20 percent. The number of judicial emergencies – vacancies that have caused courts to face extraordinary backlogs in cases -- has risen from 27 to 38, an increase of 40 percent.
The Brennan Center also documents the huge surge in federal district court vacancies and judicial emergencies since the start of President Obama's term.
…and it’s not just judges.
Republicans have filibustered more of President Obama’s executive branch nominees than were filibustered under all other presidents combined. From 1949 through the end of 2008, the Senate held cloture votes to end filibusters of 20 executive branch nominees. So far in the Obama administration, the Senate has held cloture votes on 27 executive branch nominees. That means the Senate GOP is on pace to filibuster over twice as many of President Obama’s executive branch nominees as the total number filibustered under all previous presidents combined.
Among President Obama’s executive branch nominees who have faced unsuccessful cloture votes is Rep. Mel Watt, nominated to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency, who became the first sitting member of Congress to be blocked from an administrative position since before the Civil War.
WASHINGTON – The Senate today failed to overcome a Republican filibuster of the nomination of Judge Robert Wilkins to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Only two Republican senators – Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska – voted for cloture on Wilkins’ nomination.
Republicans are also filibustering President Obama’s two other nominees to the court, Nina Pillard and Patricia Millett.
The Senate unanimously confirmed Wilkins to his current post on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in 2010.
Marge Baker, Executive Vice President of People For the American Way, said:
“Just three years ago, Senate Republicans found Robert Wilkins perfectly qualified to be a federal judge. Now, they’re filibustering his nomination to the D.C. Circuit simply because they don’t want President Obama to be able to fill that court’s vacancies.
“This is the latest example of Republicans in Congress attempting to circumvent laws they don’t like simply by obstructing the workings of government. They shut down the government in an attempt to nullify the health care law. They routinely filibuster nominees to executive agencies and departments that they don’t want to function. And now they’re going after judicial nominees simply because they don’t like the result of last year’s presidential election.
“This is unacceptable. These nominees are not going away. I hope that when they have a chance to vote again on these three nominations, reasonable Republican senators will follow the lead of Sens. Collins and Murkowski and allow yes-or-no votes.”
To: Interested Parties
From: Marge Baker, Executive Vice President, People For the American Way
Date: November 18, 2013
Re: GOP Exceeds Expectations…on Executive Branch Obstruction
Earlier this year, People For the American Way released an analysis showing the unprecedented level of obstruction faced by President Obama’s nominees to the executive branch. At that time, 16 of the President’s nominees to the executive branch of government had faced filibusters from Republican senators and were the subject of cloture votes after Republicans refused to allow an up-or-down vote on their nominations. That number was on pace to reach 28 nominees by the end of President Obama’s second term.
Since then, things have only gotten worse.
In the last four months, eleven additional executive branch nominees have faced filibusters from Republicans intent on blocking their nominations. These include Fred P. Hochberg (Export-Import Bank President), Regina McCarthy (Environmental Protection Agency Administrator), Thomas Perez (Secretary of Labor), Kent Yoshiho Hirozawa (National Labor Relations Board member), Nancy Jean Schiffer (National Labor Relations Board member), Mark Gaston Pearce (National Labor Relations Board Chairman), Byron Todd Jones (Director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives), Richard F. Griffin (National Labor Relations Board General Counsel), Alan F. Estevez (Assistant Secretary of Defense Logistics and Materiel Readiness), Katherine Archuleta (Director of the Office of Personnel Management), and Congressman Melvin L. Watt (Director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency). Notably, the filibuster of Congressman Watt represented the first filibuster of a sitting member of Congress for an executive branch appointment since before the Civil War.
Importantly, the rate of obstruction has increased considerably, and Republicans are now on pace to filibuster a full 45 nominees before the end of the Obama administration in January 2017.
Not only do these filibusters hinder the work of a wide range of agencies and departments, they are also part of a larger Republican agenda to nullify existing laws through obstruction. Many of President Obama’s executive branch nominees have faced filibusters not because Senate Republicans objected to their personal qualifications, but because they do not wish to allow the agencies and departments to which they have been nominated to do their work.
This nullification strategy is part of the same wrong-headed philosophy that forced the government to shut down last month, and which is currently preventing three impressively qualified nominees for the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals from receiving confirmation votes.
The ultimate victims of Republican obstruction aren’t the Senate’s Democratic leadership or even President Obama, but the individual Americans who depend on a government that operates effectively and addresses the needs of real people.
Correction: This post was updated to include the filibusters of Fred Hochberg, Regina McCarthy, and Thomas Perez.
The astounding show of Republican recklessness that led to last month's government shutdown made one thing very clear. The new Republican Party -- the one ruled by the Tea Party -- isn't interested in making our government work. They want to break it.
Now, as if shutting down the government of the United States, furloughing hundreds of thousands of government employees, wasting billions of dollars and threatening to wreck America's economy wasn't enough, Republicans in Congress have set their sights on a new target: our justice system.
Yesterday, Senate Republicans took their campaign against our government to a whole new level when they blocked the nomination of Nina Pillard to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which is widely considered to be the nation's second-highest court behind the Supreme Court.
Pillard is one of President Obama's three nominees to fill vacancies on the D.C. Circuit, which is currently operating with nearly one-third of its active judgeships vacant. All three nominees have extraordinary professional qualifications. All three have support from across the ideological spectrum. Yet Senate Republicans are vowing to filibuster all three simply because they were nominated by President Obama.
One of the most basic functions of the U.S. Senate is to provide "advice and consent" to the president on his nominations to executive agencies and to the federal courts. For most of our country's history, the Senate has generally taken this constitutional order responsibly, using its power to block only nominees whom senators found unqualified or dangerously far out of the mainstream. That is, until now.
The same party that shut down the government in an attempt to nullify a duly-enacted law that it does not like is now trying to prevent a twice-elected president from filling vacancies on an important court -- a duty entrusted to him by the Constitution.
There's a reason Republican obstructionists have targeted the D.C. Circuit. The court has the last word on important federal laws and administrative rules on issues ranging from clean air regulations to workers' rights to cigarette labeling requirements to presidential recess appointments. Basically, just about any area that we regulate through our federal government is going to be affected by the D.C. Circuit. And it is currently dominated by conservative ideologues: nine of the 14 judges on the court (including "active" judges and senior judges who participate in panel decisions) were nominated by Republican presidents seeking to remake the courts in their ideological image.
Republicans want to keep it this way. President Obama has nominated five people to the court, yet Senate Republicans have allowed only one of these nominees to so much as receive a confirmation vote. By comparison, the Senate confirmed four of George W. Bush's nominees to the court and eight of Ronald Reagan's. In fact, the ninth, tenth, and eleventh seats that Republicans today demand remain vacant are ones that they ensured were filled when George W. Bush was president.
To give you an idea of just how conservative this court is as a result, just this month a George W. Bush nominee and a George H.W. Bush nominee ruled that employers who oppose birth control should be able to deny their employees access to affordable contraception through their insurance plans -- an absurd twisting of the true meaning of religious liberty. A few months ago, the court ruled that a law requiring employers to display a poster listing employees' legal rights violates the free speech rights of the employers. No, really!
Unable to win national elections, Republicans are trying to hold on to what power they still have -- and that includes control of the powerful D.C. Circuit. Just like they couldn't accept that the Affordable Care Act was the law of the land, the Tea Party won't admit that Americans chose President Obama to be the one making picks to the federal courts.
The Tea Party thinks that it has some sort of intellectual property claim on the U.S. Constitution. But sometimes I wonder if its leaders have even read it.
President Obama has nominated three extraordinarily well qualified individuals to serve on the influential U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. But the Republican Party's intransigence and opposition have turned this into one of the most important obstruction fights we've seen in the last five years.
On Tuesday, September 24, People For the American Way hosted a telebriefing with U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) to discuss the matter.
Senator Blumenthal, who sits on the Judiciary Committee, chaired last week’s hearings on the nomination of Nina Pillard to a seat on the D.C. Circuit. He gave a first-hand account of how very qualified she is to serve on this all important court. He explained how important the D.C. Circuit is in the federal judicial system, why it’s important to fill the current vacancies on the court, and how Pillard exemplifies the brilliance and integrity that is so important in filling these vacancies.
Listen to the call for yourself here:
We had a lot of questions from callers about the need to overcome the GOP’s obstruction on these nominees and talked about how important it is for constituents to let their Senators know that it’s time for the obstruction to end.
Thanks to all the PFAW members who the time to join our call. We’ll continue to fight to make sure President Obama's nominees get the simple yes or no votes they deserve.