The Senate GOP under President Obama has mastered the art of proactive apathy. Not content with neglecting their own jobs, Senate Republicans have expertly used their own dysfunction to prevent other parts of government from doing theirs. These efforts have consequences far beyond bureaucratic procedure: whether it’s by crippling the courts or attacking agencies that hold corporations accountable, Republicans are making it harder for individual Americans to access the rights that a functioning government protects.
This week, Senate Republicans added two new public disservices to their resume. On Tuesday, they shattered the 2005 "Gang of 14" deal that prevented filibusters of judicial nominees in all but extraordinary circumstances, setting a standard that no nominee for the D.C. Circuit will be able to meet. As President Obama said about the filibuster of Halligan’s nomination, "The only extraordinary things about Ms. Halligan are her qualifications and her intellect." And then on Thursday, they blocked President Obama’s nominee to head a new federal agency simply because they do not want that agency to exist — a move that will have untold consequences on future attempts to staff the executive branch.
These political power plays by a minority of senators are far more than "inside the Beltway" procedural dust ups. They signal the emergence of a party that is so intent on tilting the playing field in favor of the powerful that they will sacrifice basic public service in order to serve the interests of a powerful few.
On Tuesday, all but one Senate Republican refused to allow an up-or-down confirmation vote on Caitlin Halligan, a D.C. Circuit Court nominee who in any other year would have been easily approved by the Senate. The GOP struggled to find a reason to oppose Halligan on her merits, ultimately settling on a handful of trumped-up charges and the ridiculous argument that the D.C. Circuit, with one third of its seats vacant, didn’t need another judge. When George W. Bush was president, many of these same Republicans loudly proclaimed that filibustering judicial nominees violates the United States Constitution, ultimately agreeing to the "Gang of 14" deal that judicial nominees would only be filibustered under "extraordinary circumstances." The vote on Halligan shattered that deal, opening the door for further political abuse of the judicial confirmation process.
On Thursday, the story repeated itself when the GOP succeeded in blocking a vote to confirm Richard Cordray to lead the newly created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Cordray, the former attorney general of Ohio, is as non-controversial as they come. He has a history of working with banks and with consumer advocates. He’s backed by a bipartisan coalition of attorneys general, including the Republican who beat him in last year’s election. Republicans in the Senate don’t have any problems with Cordray. But they’ve made it very clear that they’ll do everything in their power to keep the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau from performing the functions that it is required by law to carry out. They don’t want anyone to lead the agency, because without a Senate-confirmed head, it cannot perform all of its legally assigned duties. This is not conjecture on the part of progressives; Republicans have brazenly admitted it.
Unfortunately, these votes are not aberrations. They are part of a clear pattern of the Senate GOP since President Obama’s election. Unable to accept the results of an election they lost, and unable to get their own way on everything, they have resorted to obstruction and dysfunction. They have abused the extraordinary power the Senate minority is granted , blocking everything they get their hands on, sometimes, it seem, simply because they can. In the process, they are damaging America’s system of justice and accountability and betraying the voters they were elected to serve.
Perhaps they are doing this to serve the powerful corporate special interests that do not want courts and agencies to hold them accountable, or perhaps they are doing it to score political points against a Democratic president, or some combination of those reasons. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Either way, they are abusing their positions and throwing sand in the gears of the Senate to make it harder for ordinary Americans to get our day in court and to defend ourselves against the powerful. It’s a deeply cynical strategy, and ultimately a deeply harmful one.