November 21, 2013
Democracy Returns to the Senate
By THE EDITORIAL BOARD
For five years, Senate Republicans have refused to allow confirmation votes on dozens of perfectly qualified candidates nominated by President Obama for government positions. They tried to nullify entire federal agencies by denying them leaders. They abused Senate rules past the point of tolerance or responsibility. And so they were left enraged and threatening revenge on Thursday when a majority did the only logical thing and stripped away their power to block the president’s nominees.
In a 52-to-48 vote that substantially altered the balance of power in Washington, the Senate changed its most infuriating rule and effectively ended the filibuster on executive and judicial appointments. From now on, if any senator tries to filibuster a presidential nominee, that filibuster can be stopped with a simple majority, not the 60-vote requirement of the past. That means a return to the democratic process of giving nominees an up-or-down vote, allowing them to be either confirmed or rejected by a simple majority.
The only exceptions are nominations to the Supreme Court, where a filibuster would still be allowed. But now that the Senate has begun to tear down undemocratic procedures, the precedent set on Thursday will increase the pressure to end those filibusters, too.
This vote was long overdue. “I have waited 18 years for this moment,” said Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa.
It would have been unthinkable just a few months ago, when the majority leader, Harry Reid, was still holding out hope for a long-lasting deal with Republicans and insisting that federal judges, because of their lifetime appointments, should still be subject to supermajority thresholds. But Mr. Reid, along with all but three Senate Democrats, was pushed to act by the Republicans’ refusal to allow any appointments to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, just because they wanted to keep a conservative majority on that important court.
That move was as outrageous as the tactic they used earlier this year to try to cripple the National Labor Relations Board and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (which they despise) by blocking all appointments to those agencies. That obstruction was removed in July when Mr. Reid threatened to end the filibuster and Republicans backed down. The recent blockade of judges to the D.C. appellate court was the last straw.
Republicans warned that the rule change could haunt the Democrats if they lose the White House and the Senate. But the Constitution gives presidents the right to nominate top officials in their administration and name judges, and says nothing about the ability of a Senate minority to stop them. (The practice barely existed before the 1970s.) From now on, voters will have to understand that presidents are likely to get their way on nominations if their party controls the Senate. Given the extreme degree of Republican obstruction during the Obama administration, the Democrats had little choice but to change the filibuster rule. As Mr. Reid noted on the floor, half of all filibusters waged against nominations in Senate history have occurred since Mr. Obama was elected. Twenty of his district court nominees were filibustered; only three such filibusters took place before he took office. There has also been a record-setting amount of delay in approving the president’s choices for cabinet positions and federal agency posts, even in cases when no objections were raised about a nominee’s qualifications.
The rule change does not end the 60-vote threshold for blocking legislation, which we have argued is worth preserving. But the vote may lead to broader filibuster changes. A proposal by several younger Democratic senators to require “talking filibusters” — forcing objecting lawmakers to stand up at length and make their cases — may well gain steam now, and could finally spell an end to logjams that have prevented important legislation from reaching votes.
Democrats made the filibuster change with a simple-majority vote, which Republicans insisted was a violation of the rules. There is ample precedent for this kind of change, though it should be used judiciously. Today’s vote was an appropriate use of that power, and it was necessary to turn the Senate back into a functioning legislative body.