The Nullification Strategy: How Senate Republicans Abuse the Filibuster to Undermine the Courts, Executive Agencies, and American Voters

To: Interested Parties
From: Marge Baker, Executive Vice President, People For the American Way
Date: November 12, 2013
Re: The Nullification Strategy: How Senate Republicans Abuse the Filibuster to Undermine the Courts, Executive Agencies, and American Voters

Earlier this month, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the Dean of the Senate and one of the most steadfast protectors of its traditions, announced that for the first time in his decades-long Senate career he was considering supporting a change to the Senate’s filibuster rules.

Leahy’s reluctant change of heart is a sign of the extent to which Senate Republicans have abused the rules of the Senate not only to oppose legislation and nominees with whom they disagree, but to change the rules of government, using obstruction to nullify laws and agencies that they lack the electoral mandate to overturn or eliminate through legitimate means.

Senate Republicans under President Obama have turned the Constitution's command of "advice and consent" into a prerogative to obstruct and nullify -- a violation of the Constitution's spirit that ignores the will of American voters and threatens to undermine the functioning of all three branches of government.

Using what Sen. Tim Kaine has called the "decapitation strategy," Senate Republicans routinely deny confirmation votes to qualified, widely respected nominees simply because the GOP wants to cripple the agency or court to which the individual was nominated.

This strategy will reach a new low today if Senate Republicans succeed in blocking an up-or-down vote on the nomination of Nina Pillard to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, as they have indicated that they intend to do.

How the Nullification Strategy Works

In June, President Obama nominated three highly qualified individuals to fill the three vacancies on the D.C. Circuit Court. On Oct. 31, Republicans blocked a vote on the nomination of Patricia Millett. Today, they are expected to deny cloture on the nomination of Nina Pillard. And they have indicated that they will do the same to President Obama's third nominee to the court, Robert Wilkins.

Senate Republicans have made clear that they are blocking votes on these nominees simply because they do not want President Obama to be able to fill vacancies on this particular court. In fact, the Senate’s GOP leadership signaled their intention to stonewall all three nominees before they even knew who they would be – a clear sign that their obstruction has nothing to do with the nominees’ records or qualifications.

Similarly, Republicans blocked President Obama’s nominees to the National Labor Relations Board, preventing the agency from achieving a quorum; in so doing, they successfully sabotaged enforcement of the National Labor Relations Act without actually amending the law. They refused for a full two years to confirm a head to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which prevented it from exercising some of its most important authorities; they admitted they had no problem with the nominee (Richard Cordray) but instead wanted to force Democrats to change the law and weaken the newly-created agency.

And of course, President Obama's nominee to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency, Rep. Mel Watt of North Carolina, is in the same position after Senate Republicans blocked a vote on his nomination, making him the first sitting member of Congress to be blocked from confirmation to an Administration position since before the Civil War.

Notably, a large number of the nominees who have faced politically-motivated blockades have been women and people of color. The blocked D.C. Circuit nominees are two women and an African-American man. Several months ago, Republicans blocked another woman, Caitlin Halligan, from a seat on the court, which will make Pillard the third woman this year that Republicans have blocked from the D.C. Circuit.

Why Republicans Have Targeted the D.C. Circuit

There is a reason that Senate Republicans have chosen the D.C. Circuit as an object of their obstruction: The court, which regularly reviews decisions by federal agencies on a broad range of issues important to the public at large, is currently dominated by Republican-nominated jurists who routinely undercut the ability of federal agencies to protect workers and consumers.

Although the court's eight active judges are divided evenly between Democratic and Republican nominees, five of the court’s six senior judges are Republican appointees. These senior judges sit on the three-judge panels that do most of the court’s work, and maintain a strong influence over the court. So when you draw a three-judge panel, there’s a high likelihood that it will have a conservative majority because Republican nominees outnumber Democratic ones 9-5, a nearly 2-1 ratio. In fact, 15 of the last 19 judges confirmed to the court were nominated by Republican presidents. That includes four George W. Bush nominees, three George H.W. Bush nominees, and eight Ronald Reagan nominees. By contrast, the Senate has confirmed just one of President Obama's nominees to the D.C. Circuit, Sri Srinivasan.

The conservative judges who currently dominate the D.C. Circuit have pushed an anti-regulatory, pro-corporate ideological agenda that clearly appeals to Senate Republicans. In just the past few years, Republican-nominated judges on the court have blocked EPA efforts to limit cross-state air pollution, defeated cigarette labeling requirements, and used severely flawed reasoning to declare that requiring employers to post a notice informing employees of their right to unionize violates the free speech rights of the employers. The D.C. Circuit has also aided Senate Republicans in their agenda of obstruction, voiding the president’s appointments of  NRLB Members whom the president had been forced to recess-appoint after the GOP had refused to let the agency reach a quorum.

After he voted to block Millett’s nomination, Republican Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois admitted that preserving the DC Circuit’s rightward slant was the reason for his party’s obstruction. "We're worried about that court being a significant bastion for administrative law cases on Obamacare,” he told the Huffington Post.

President Obama's nominees to fill the three vacancies on the D.C. Circuit are all impeccably qualified. Judge Wilkins is already a federal judge, serving on the US District Court for the District of Columbia, and has an impressive background in civil rights and financial law. Professor Pillard is a widely respected attorney who has personally argued and briefed key Supreme Court cases – including key women’s equality cases -- brought or defended by government lawyers from Republican administrations, and Republican-appointed justices often authored the majority opinions in her favor. She co-directs  a universally admired nonpartisan institute that prepares attorneys to argue before the Supreme Court. Millett is one of the most respected appellate attorneys in the nation, and has argued dozens of cases before the Supreme Court.

Yet all three are facing filibusters simply because they were nominated by President Obama.

Stunningly, Senate Republicans have attempted to turn the tables on the president, accusing him of "court-packing" for attempting to fill congressionally-designated judicial vacancies with qualified nominees. This argument is laughably transparent: President Obama has nominated qualified individuals to seats that have been filled by all of his recent predecessors, even when the court's caseload was lower than it is today.

The Constitution mandates that the president name and the Senate fairly review nominees to federal judgeships created by Congress. President Obama has done his job by nominating three extraordinarily qualified nominees to the D.C. Circuit. But the Senate GOP is refusing to fulfill its duty of "advice and consent,” and is instead attempting to nullify the law and pretend the court has only eight seats.

This is the same strategy that House Republicans used when they shut down the federal government and threatened a default on the country’s debt in an attempt to bring down a law that had been enacted by Congress and upheld by the Supreme Court. Unable to achieve their preferred policies by winning elections, Republicans are attempting to nullify the results of those elections through extreme obstruction. 

This abuse of the filibuster has now led even one of the Senate's most fervent institutionalists  to consider eliminating the minority's ability to block nominees -- a fundamental change to an institution that less than ten years ago agreed to use the filibuster only under "extraordinary circumstances."

Senate Republicans must reconsider their nullification strategy, or risk harming not only the courts and executive agencies they are targeting, but the institution of the Senate itself.

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