Friday, February 05, 2010

A new milestone in Republican obstructionism? - Sen. Richard Shelby blocks ALL Obama nominees to force action on two of his earmarks

As reported in the National Journal:
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., has placed a blanket hold on all executive nominations on the Senate calendar in an effort to win concessions from the Obama administration and Pentagon on a variety of fronts affecting his home state, according to aides to Senate Majority Leader Reid. Reid spokeswoman Regan Lachapelle said Shelby is blocking more than 70 pending nominations. [....]
Or, as Josh Marshall of TPM sums it up a bit more pointedly:
[....] Sen. Richard Shelby (R) of Alabama has taken the perhaps unprecedented step of placing holds on ALL of President Obama's nominees until he gets the money for a couple of big earmarked pork barrel projects he feels entitled to back in his home state.
This incident reveals a lot about how our political system is working (or not working) right now. But first lets' put it in context.

=> As I've noted before, a central fact about current American politics, but one that seems to be insufficiently recognized by the commentariat and the general public, is that the Congressional Republicans have been manipulating the Senate rules to pursue a strategy of relentless and monolithic obstructionism to a degree unprecedented in American history. What has enabled them to do this is a degree of party discipline that is, again, unprecedented.

=> The most obvious manifestation of this obstructionist strategy is the increasingly routine and promiscuous use of the filibuster to block legislation or simply to sabotage, delay, and disrupt legislative business. Technically, what this means nowadays is not conducting actual filibusters, but threatening filibusters so as to force cloture motions, requiring 60 votes and a great deal of time, before a measure can be brought to the floor for a vote. After the Republicans lost their Senate majority in 2006, the annual rate of cloture motions abruptly doubled, and we can expect it to continue rising.

What does "promiscuous" mean in this context? Well, one example would be the fact that in December 2009 the Republicans were willing to filibuster the military appropriations bill. They are not really opposed to funding the military, but they had no qualms about using any available legislative device with which to gum up the works and prevent a vote on the health care reform bill.
Asked if he would vote for the defense bill, which Republicans routinely support, Senator Sam Brownback Republican of Kansas, replied bluntly: “No. I don’t want health care.”
=>However, filibuster threats are only one way to exploit the arcana of Senate rules for obstructionist purposes. There is also the ability of individual Senators to place "holds" on consideration of Presidential nominees and other measures. Like the filibuster, this is not a new device, but it used to be restrained by informal customary norms, and most Senators used it sparingly. In the last few years, however, it has been exploding out of control.

Back in the spring of 2008, when these tendencies were already becoming apparent, Norman Ornstein wrote an informative piece on "Our Broken Senate" explaining how this "expanded use of formal rules on Capitol Hill is unprecedented and is bringing government to its knees." (Ornstein, a well-regarded analyst of US politics, is a Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where he seems to fill the niche of in-house bipartisan moderate.) Here are some highlights:
So what is different now? For one thing, everybody is an obstructionist in today’s Senate, thanks to the dramatically expanded and different role of the hold. What is a hold? It is an informal procedure—nowhere mentioned in Senate rules—where an individual senator notifies the body’s leaders that he or she will hold up a bill or nomination by denying unanimous consent to allow it to move forward. The hold was originally employed simply as a courtesy—a way to delay action for a week or two if a lawmaker had a scheduling conflict or needed time to muster arguments for debate. But over the past 30 years, it has morphed into a process where any individual can block something or someone indefinitely or permanently—and often anonymously. Now, at any given time, there are dozens of holds on nominees for executive positions and judgeships, and on bills. Of course, bills can be brought up even if there is not unanimous consent, but to do so is cumbersome and often requires 60, rather than 50, votes to proceed.

Tom Coburn is the undisputed hold champion in the Senate, with at least 80 bills and nominations in limbo because of his actions. His closest rival in the field is fellow Republican Jim DeMint. [JW: For example, at the time of the attempted Christmas underpants bombing, it was noticed that there was no one heading the Transportation Safety Administration, because Senator DeMint--whom, I confess, I have come to think of as Senator DeMented--had been blocking consideration of Obama's nominee in order to pursue an obsessive anti-union agenda.] But these days, all senators use holds. Where in the past, holds were targeted at bills or nominees senators strongly opposed, nowadays they are routinely employed against bills or people the senator has nothing against, but wants to take as hostages for leverage on something utterly unrelated to the hold itself. [....]

The big story of the 110th Senate, though, is not [just] the explosion of individual use of an unwritten practice, but the sharply expanded use of the formal rules as a partisan political tactic to delay and block action by the majority. [....]
This is where the increasingly unrestrained use of filibusters, of holds, and of other obstructionist devices all come together in a systematic Republican strategy.
In the 1970s, the average number of cloture motions filed in a given month was less than two; it moved to around three a month in the 1990s. This Congress, we are on track for two or more a week. The number of cloture motions filed in 1993, the first year of the Clinton presidency, was 20. It was 21 in 1995, the first year of the newly Republican Senate. As of the end of the first session of the 110th Congress, there were 60 cloture motions, nearing an all-time record. [JW: Surpassed in 2009, of course.]

What makes this Congress different? The most interesting change is GOP strategy. Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell (KY) has threatened filibuster on a wide range of issues, in part to force Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to negotiate with his party and in part just to gum up the works. Republicans have invoked filibusters or used other delaying tactics on controversial issues like Medicare prescription drugs, the war in Iraq, and domestic surveillance—and on non-controversial issues like ethics reform and electronic campaign disclosure.

[....] Reid often has to go through three separate cloture battles, each one allowing a lot of debate, including 30 hours of it even after cloture is invoked. [....]
=> All this forms the background for the latest gambit by Sen. Shelby, which is actually an example of the classic hostage-taking "hold," but escalated to a new level of shamelessness and audacity. Shelby is frustrated because the administration has been, in his view, too slow to start spending money in Alabama for some projects he sponsored as earmarks. (Actually, the key decision in one of these cases seems to have been made during the Bush II administration.) To force action on his earmarks, he has gone beyond blocking consideration of just one appointment, and has put a hold on consideration of all pending executive appointments that require Senate confirmation. You've got to give the guy credit for chutzpah. To quote Josh Marshall again:
In this case, we're not dealing with a stand on partisanship or ideology or simple political shiv play which I guess can each be respected in their own place. This is more like just a stick up. Gimme my money and I'll give you your Senate back! Worse than a squeegee man and not much better than a bank robber, Shelby is shutting down the president's ability to appoint anyone to anything until he gets his way. [....] The only mystery about this one is which is more outrageous -- Shelby's hold or the fact that the rest of the senators of both parties allow it.

Perhaps, like so many other times, this will be today's outrage that is the new normal by tomorrow. But this are volatile times. And I wonder if this isn't the live wire in the gasoline.
Perhaps. As I mentioned, a lot of evidence suggests that most people have little understanding of the procedural reasons why the operations of government are so gridlocked these days. (Last Saturday Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight noted that "a Pew poll this week found that only 26 percent of Americans know that it takes 60 votes to overcome a Senate filibuster -- and only 32 percent know that Senate GOPers voted unanimously against the Democrats' health care plan.") Ironically, this gambit of Shelby's is not so much part of the systematic strategy of obstructionism as an expression of a general atmosphere in which unrestrained and promiscuous obstructionism has become standard operating procedure. But perhaps, for that very reason, it could provoke a moment of revelation. This particular action is so blatant, so arrogant, and so easy to grasp that it might help to prompt some wider awareness of what's going on.

In fact, for tactical public-relations reasons, it might well be smart for the Republican Senate leadership to get Shelby to pull back before the full implications of this incident begin to sink in with journalists and the public. Then again, perhaps they'll brazen it out and, once again, get away with it.

--Jeff Weintraub

P.S. Journalists and other political junkies have hunted around to see whether there have been any previous occasions when a Senator placed a comprehensive blanket hold on all pending nominations. So far, no one has come up with a previous example, so Sen. Shelby really does seem to be a pioneer.

On the other hand, over the past few decades several other Senators, from both parties, have used multiple holds as bargaining chips (sometimes in retaliation for other holds, which--believe it or not--are often anonymous), though none of these have blocked the whole nomination process as totally as as Shelby's. (For example, in one of the more sweeping earlier cases, Harry Reid once imposed a collective block on a number of pending nominations, but he excluded all military and judicial nominees from his hold. Republican James Inhofe once blocked judicial and foreign-affairs nominations in order to enforce his homophobic opposition to the appointment of a gay ambassador, but he left other nominations alone. Shelby has blocked all pending nominations, without exception, and is holding them hostage to get his two earmarks.)

As Ornstein correctly noted, the gradual increase in the use of this obstructionist device as a routine maneuver is a systemic problem, and now it has broken through all normative restraints. This is no way to run a serious government of a serious country. For further technical explanation of how "holds" work (they're actually a by-product of the routinized filibuster), see here & here.

Update 2/8/2010: Shelby has backed down, canceling his blanket hold on all pending nominations--but continuing to block "a few nominees directly related to the Air Force tanker acquisition until the new Request for Proposal is issued."

===============================
Talking Points Memo
February 5, 2010
Senate Shark Jump Announced
By Josh Marshall

You've seen the reports that Sen. Richard Shelby (R) of Alabama has taken the perhaps unprecedented step of placing holds on ALL of President Obama's nominees until he gets the money for a couple of big earmarked pork barrel projects he feels entitled to back in his home state.

It's an eye-popper no doubt, with gallons more audacity than Obama ever could have hoped for. But I wonder if this story might not end up amounting to much more than the sum of its parts because it brings together three or four of the issues roiling American politics today in a bundle of smack-you-in-the-face arrogance that's too much to ignore.

For Republicans and the Tea Party set you've got pork-barrel spending and earmarks, two catchwords that are frequently abused and used to paint with too broad a brush but in this case seem pretty fairly to describe a senior senator's power to wrestle tens of billions of federal dollars back into his home state.

For Democrats, there's the outrage at archaic Senate obstructionism which has rapidly escalated from annoying to outrageous to pure comedy with a mind-numbing speed. It's the heart of the story about the demise of Health Care Reform, the slow death of so many unobjectionable nominees and much else.

In this case, we're not dealing with a stand on partisanship or ideology or simple political shiv play which I guess can each be respected in their own place. This is more like just a stick up. Gimme my money and I'll give you your Senate back! Worse than a squeegee man and not much better than a bank robber, Shelby is shutting down the president's ability to appoint anyone to anything until he gets his way. In a sense Shelby's gambit is little different from what countless other senators of both parties have done in the past, using the senate rules to get the White House's attention to pry some money free from the federal government. But the scale is unheard and the moment is different. The only mystery about this one is which is more outrageous -- Shelby's hold or the fact that the rest of the senators of both parties allow it.

Perhaps, like so many other times, this will be today's outrage that is the new normal by tomorrow. But this are volatile times. And I wonder if this isn't the live wire in the gasoline.

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