What do Richard Boulware, a federal judge in Nevada; Nina Pillard, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit; and Melvin Watt, director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, have in common?
All are highly qualified for their jobs. All bring to their work outstanding backgrounds in public service. And none of them would have been able to serve the American people in their current jobs if not for last year’s reform of Senate rules.
That’s because while all of them had the support of a majority of senators, none had 60 votes. That’s what it used to take to end a filibuster on an executive branch or judicial nominee.
A rule-or-ruin campaign by the Republican minority had turned the filibuster from a rarely used tactic reserved for extreme circumstances into a weapon of mass obstruction, used routinely to block nominations and paralyze entire government agencies.
That’s why the Senate had to change its rules to end filibusters with a simple majority vote. But now a months-long Republican temper tantrum is wasting the Senate’s — and the American people’s — time, necessitating new countermeasures.
The effort to fill vacancies on the D.C. Circuit was a classic example of life before rules reform. Republicans made clear they would oppose anyone President Barack Obama nominated to fill three vacancies on what is widely considered the nation’s second most important court. That’s because Republicans had a clear majority on that court and they abused the filibuster to try to keep it that way.
Faced with no other alternative, the Senate majority changed the rules. As a result, Pillard and two other highly-qualified nominees have filled all the open seats on the D.C. Circuit. Seven other nominees for Circuit Courts of Appeals also were confirmed, and there is little doubt at least three of them would not have made it without rules reform.
Rules reform also gave an additional push to Obama’s commendable efforts to diversify the federal bench. He has appointed the highest percentage of women, people of color and openly gay judges in history. The president’s most recent nominees also show a commendable breadth of professional diversity. Many have worked as plaintiff attorneys and public defenders.
One of those public defenders is Boulware. That simple fact, plus the fact that he was active as an officer of the Las Vegas branch of the NAACP, was enough to provoke strong Republican opposition — strong enough to block Boulware from becoming a judge if not for rules reform.
And there is every indication that, absent rules reform, things would have gotten even worse. Given the Republican penchant for shutting down government, does anyone really doubt that by now Senate Republicans would have refused to confirm any Obama nominee for any job until they saw how the midterm elections turn out?
But rules reform alone was not enough to achieve this progress. Republicans responded with every procedural tactic in the book to slow confirmations to a crawl. They demanded a vote to end debate on every judicial nominee, wasting hour after hour of precious Senate time.
Fortunately, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has refused to give in to obstruction. He’s insisted that judicial nominees get the confirmation votes they deserve, and he’s invested the floor time necessary to get nominees confirmed. As a result, 55 judges have been confirmed so far this year, compared with 28 during the same period in 2013.
But in the process, day after day is wasted. Under current rules, even after the Senate votes to end debate senators can keep on “debating” for another two hours for every district court nominee, eight hours for most executive branch nominees and 30 hours for nominees for circuit courts and the president’s Cabinet.
And “debating” isn’t really the right word — senators don’t have to use the time to talk about the nominees, or anything at all.
These delays stall confirmation of nominees — many of whom go on to be confirmed unanimously —and prevent the Senate from doing the important business of solving our nation’s problems.
That’s why we and our partners in the Fix the Senate Now coalition think the next step in rules reform should be to require that senators at least use their debate time to actually debate the merits of the nomination before them: In other words — use it or lose it.
Nan Aron is president of Alliance for Justice.