The Clinton Herald
---- — For 17 days in October Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives tied Congress into knots over the federal budget. Within days of resolving that crisis with some talk of bipartisanship in Congress, Republicans in the Senate were back at it with a filibuster to block confirmation of two of the president’s appointments.
Fifty-six senators voted to confirm Melvin Watt to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency, and 55 voted to confirm Patricia Millett to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. But the nominations needed 60 votes to end the Republican filibuster, so both were defeated.
In Watt’s case, the Senate filibuster stuck a thumb in the eye of not just the president but the House, where he is a representative from North Carolina.
The filibuster of Millett’s confirmation violates the 2005 bipartisan deal that limited filibusters of judicial confirmations to “extraordinary circumstances.” To hear some senators, this appointment apparently meets that test, because Millett would add a liberal vote to the D.C. Circuit.
This is a preposterous reason for blocking any judicial nominee, and the Democrats who hold a slim majority in the Senate have threatened to blow up the filibuster rule. That is precisely what they should do. Nothing in the Constitution requires more than a majority vote to confirm appointments.
Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn warned that Democrats would regret a rule allowing simple majority approval for judicial confirmations if Republicans control the Senate and White House. “Then we could confirm another (Justice Antonin) Scalia, another (Justice Clarence) Thomas with 51 votes. So I think they need to think twice, and I think they understand that.”
Apparently Cornyn forgets that however much the Democrats objected to those Republican Supreme Court nominees, they did not filibuster either one. Indeed, Scalia was confirmed 98-0, and Thomas was approved by a 52-48 margin that included 11 Democrats.
No one has challenged Patricia Millett’s qualifications. In fact she has been widely praised by lawyers from across the political spectrum. But this confirmation battle is not about fitness. It is about partisan political obstructionism. There are three vacancies on the 11-seat D.C. Circuit, but Republicans are blocking President Obama’s nominees because they want to maintain the “ideological balance” on the court, which has four judges appointed by Democratic presidents and four by Republicans.
Iowa’s Sen. Chuck Grassley is one of the leaders of this misguided effort. Grassley believes the D.C. Circuit is underworked and should be permanently reduced to eight judges, but he makes no bones about his belief that the Obama administration is out to “stack” the D.C. court with liberals.
While Grassley’s math on the federal appeals courts’ workload comparisons may be open to debate, his “ideological balance” argument simply does not add up. Besides the eight full-time judges on that court, there are six semi-retired judges who participate in the court’s decisions. Five of those six were appointed by Republican presidents.
If ideological balance were the norm, the two parties would take turns blocking confirmations for all 11 federal appeals courts until they reach ideological parity. Yet, this has not been a concern for Grassley on the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Iowa and six other Midwest states. Eight of the 11 full-time judges and three of the four semi-retired judges on that court were appointed by Republican presidents. Grassley wasn’t concerned about “ideological balance” when voting for those appointees.
Judges should be nominated and confirmed based on their abilities, not political affiliations. Presidents are elected by the people, and they have the right to appoint judges of their choosing. The Senate has a right to question their fitness but not their politics. At the very least, the Senate should give the president’s nominees an up-or-down vote. That was the Republican mantra before. It should be the mantra now.