There’s an old saying in the South, and no doubt elsewhere, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But our current crop of leaders in Washington don’t seem to realize that. Take the Senate for example. Its purpose was designed by the men who wrote the Constitution to serve as a check on the impulsiveness of the members of the House. For that reason, they were originally elected by the state legislatures. For that reason, they serve six-year terms, not two years.
The traditions that grew up in the Senate also reflected their call to be a deliberative body. Anyone who has ever seen the Jimmy Stewart’s powerful performance in “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” appreciates the full power of the filibuster. These extra-constitutional norms of behavior lasted for nearly 300 years because they served our country well. However, in the last few decades politics has gone from being a matter of public service to one of grabbing power in any way possible.
Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader in 2014, was the first the step on the slippery slope when he employed the so-called “nuclear option” which changed the Senate rules to allow judicial appointments, other than that of the Supreme Court, to be passed by a simple 51-vote majority instead of the previous 60-vote requirement. Now the Democrats are sitting by helplessly as a Republican-controlled Senate is powering through judicial appointments at an unprecedented rate. But they have only themselves to blame.
The Republicans, led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, are proving themselves no less opportunistic. One of the lesser known, yet equally powerful, norms in judicial appointments is that of the “blue slip” rule. The blue slip rule allowed a Senator from the state where a judicial appointment was being made to effectively block that appointment if he or she felt the appointment was inappropriate. There were good reasons behind this rule. These Senators would be familiar with the people being nominated to federal judgeships. They knew their background and their abilities. Certainly some were blocked purely for political reasons, but the “blue slip” was not used frequently.
Now McConnell has said he will no longer honor these requests. Not just from Democrats like Al Franken, but also one from Republican John Kennedy from Louisiana. McConnell, as you will recall, is the same man who told fellow Senator Elizabeth Warren to sit down and shut up when she tried to read Coretta Scott King’s letter about Jeff Sessions during his confirmation vote when it came before the Senate. “Nevertheless, she persisted.” Looking back, it is now painfully obvious which Senator was correct in their assessment of Jess Sessions’ fitness to be the United States Attorney General.
The American Bar Association also provides a fitness report on potential judicial nominees. Of the last six they have deem “unqualified” to sit on a federal court, four have been nominated by the Trump administration. One recent nominee was so egregiously bad that it shouldn’t have needed a blue slip to disqualify him. This man has only been a lawyer for three years, has never tried a case, his wife works for the White House Counsel, and spends his spare time ghost hunting. Yet he is likely to receive a lifetime appointment to a federal judgeship in Alabama.
Both parties are equally to blame when it comes to tearing down long-standing traditions. When Barack Obama was unable to pass legislation he wanted after the Republicans regained control of the Senate in the 2014 elections, he resorted to executive orders to implement programs he wanted. Donald Trump has also used this tactic, mostly by rolling back many of Obama’s executive orders, to achieve goals he cannot get through Congress.
We have always had opportunistic politicians in Washington. Fortunately, we have also had men who were statesmen and public servants serving along side them. That no longer appears to be the case. Crippled by an incompetent and increasingly ineffective President, the Republicans in Congress have become short-sighted in achieving their goals. Determined to pass a massive tax reform bill before Thanksgiving, they have done away with “regular order” in order to try to ram through their legislation.
Senator John McCain cast one of the deciding votes against the “repeal and replace” of Obamacare primarily because the legislation had not gone through “regular order.” In case you are wondering what that is, and why he was so concerned, regular order means that a bill introduced into either body of Congress is referred to the appropriate committee which holds hearings, listens to interested witnesses, and considers amendments from both parties before either referring the bill to the House or Senate for a vote, or lets the bill die in committee.
There is absolutely no need for either the House or the Senate to bypass regular order when considering such significant legislation as a massive overhaul of our tax system on such a tight timeline – other than the immediate political need to post some kind, any kind, of political win for their party before the end of the year. Instead of working for the people, they are looking instead to the 2018 mid-term elections and their own job security.
They failed with “repeal and replace.” If the polls are any indication, the people have even less trust in the Republican tax bill. A recent Fox News polls tells the tale:
— Fox News (@FoxNews) November 18, 2017
That’s right. Only 16% of people polled believe that the Republican tax plan would actually reduce their taxes, while slightly more than one third think their taxes would remain the same.
Perhaps it is because the Republicans have been out of power for so long that they feel they have a limited window to achieve their goals. But if they keep it up at this rate, their window of opportunity may not be the four years they anticipated, but a mere two years if the recent elections that went heavily Democratic are any indication of what they face in 2018.
But the norms they destroy today, the bridges they burn that have stood the test of time, may come back to bite them in the butt should the Democrats regain control of one or both bodies of Congress in 2018. And they will have no one around to blame but themselves.