Just before Thanksgiving break, the Senate voted to eliminate the super-majority needed to end filibusters on executive level and judicial nominees, clearing the path for President Obama’s most recent selections. Despite threats and consternation from the Republican Party, political pundits suggest that little will change in Washington.
The vote on the rule change came a few days after Senate Republicans blocked President Obama’s nomination of Robert Wilkins to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, the second most important court in the nation.
Less than a month earlier, in an unprecedented move, Republicans blocked Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.), a sitting congressman and President Obama’s pick to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency. The GOP also jammed Patricia Millet’s nomination to the D.C. Appeals Court.
In a statement following the vote, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said that the vote was “about making Washington work – regardless of who’s in the White House or who controls the Senate. To remain relevant and effective as an institution, the Senate must evolve to meet the challenges of a modern era.”
In the modern era of unprecedented obstruction by Republicans, Reid presided over one of the most ineffective U.S. Senate chambers in history in 2012.
According to a Brennan Center for Justice report, titled “Curbing Filibuster Abuse,” the 112th United States Congress ratified 196 public laws, “the lowest output of any Congress since at least World War II.”
The Senate passed less than 3 percent of the bills that came to the floor, a 66 percent drop off from 2005-2006.
Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, said the vote was absolutely necessary.
“The filibuster had become a weapon of mass obstruction,” said Morial.
In a statement following the Senate’s vote to eliminate the use of the filibuster on presidential nominees except for those to the Supreme Court, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus said, “Now, judicial nominees will move forward and begin to do their jobs, particularly in addressing the unprecedented workloads that have been left to sitting judges due to the high vacancy levels in both federal and district courts. Administration nominees will no longer have their confirmation hindered and unreasonably blocked.”
President Obama expressed his support for the Senate’s filibuster vote and his frustration over GOP obstruction in Congress.
“Over the six decades before I took office, only 20 presidential nominees to executive positions had to overcome filibusters,” said President Obama. “In just under five years since I took office, nearly 30 nominees have been treated this way. These are all public servants who protect our national security, look out for working families, keep our air and water clean.”
GOP leaders are threatening to retaliate in the future.
“If you want to play games and set yet another precedent that you’ll no doubt come to regret. I say to my friends on the other side of the aisle you’ll regret this,” said Senate Minority Leader McConnell before the vote. “And you may regret it a lot sooner than you think.”
Some political pundits found the threats incredulous.
“That’s like saying the Republicans are going to do something worse than what they are doing now,” said Lorenzo Morris, political science professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C. “The only thing that [Democrats] would regret is that they didn’t do more to improve their position.”
Morris continued: “There have been rules for a long time to protect the concerned, but relatively elite minority in the Senate. Now we’re returning to majority rule. Americans have to appreciate the fact that a central foundation to American democracy is majority rule. By removing the filibuster, Democrats have reinstated majority rule in Senate decision-making.”
Morris said that the filibuster rule has been powerful because party politics has been given to consensus at the very end. Morris said that consensus no longer exists.
“There have been rules for a long time to protect the concerned but relatively elite minority in the Senate,” said Morris. “Now we’re returning to majority rule. Americans have to appreciate the fact that a central foundation to American democracy is majority rule. By removing the filibuster Democrats have reinstated majority rule in Senate decision-making.”
In coming weeks, political experts agree that Robert Wilkins, an African-American judge who was rated “Unanimously Well Qualified” by the American Bar Association, will be confirmed before the end of the year.
“What makes Judge Wilkins unique he can see from the corporate level and the defendant level he has a well-rounded background you often don’t get that, said Patricia Rosier, president of the National Bar Association, the nation’s oldest and largest association of African American lawyers and judges. “A lot of times they go from a law firm to the bench or from law school to the bench they don’t have all those real experiences with real people.”
Rosier said that of all the legacies a president can leave the federal judiciary is the most lasting.
“Judges appointed to the federal judiciary are appointed for life. That has wide ramifications for decades,” said Rosier. “When some of these people sit for 20, 30, 40 years you can see how many generations of people that their decisions can affect.”
Republicans still wield significant power to block the president’s appeals court nominations due to the “blue slip rule” which calls for consent from both senators from the state to begin hearings on judicial nominee that serves in their state. Democrats may be less inclined to change that rule.
Rosier said that it’s up to voters to pressure their senators to take action.
“If nothing else we need to educate our community about the federal judiciary,” said Rosier. “People should be up in arms and writing and shutting down the switchboards to get these judges confirmed.”