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Filibuster Abuse
Unprecedented obstruction of Presidential nominees
The last few years, millions of people across the country have felt the pain of incessant and unprecedented filibuster abuse from the Senate's minority party. While it was originally designed as a mechanism to provide the minority opportunities to slow down the process through reasoned debate and discussion of controversial legislation and nominations, the filibuster has been abused in unprecedented ways since Democrats regained control of the Senate in 2007. The abuse has been well documented in all sorts of writing and data. President Obama has faced as many nomination filibusters as all previous Presidents combined, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pointed out in the graphic to the right.
Filibuster Abuse
Filibuster abuse exploded to unprecedented levels when Democrats reclaimed the Senate in 2007.
Since Republicans reclaimed control of the House in 2011, many on both sides of the aisle have insisted that filibuster reform is irrelevant at the moment because, with a divided Congress, all legislation will need to be bipartisan to pass both houses anyway. At that point, the filibuster would become irrelevant because many Senate Republicans would likely be joining with Senate Democrats to exceed the 60 vote threshold of a filibuster regardless of whether or not one is filed. To a certain extent, this is true with regard to legislation. However, aside from legislation, the main means of Republican obstruction has been the blocking of executive and judicial nominees under President Obama. The abuse is quite clear in the following graph. Whereas George W. Bush faced an average of five nomination filibusters per year, Barack Obama has faced an average of sixteen nomination filibusters per year.
President Obama's executive and judicial nominations have faced unprecedented obstruction.
Democrats can't do anything at the moment to resolve the gridlock of Washington with regard to legislation, even with filibuster reform, because of Republican control of the House. However, because Presidential executive and judicial nominations are run solely through the Senate, because Democrats control the Senate, and because many of President Obama's most important nominations have been blocked without merit in spite of these facts, it was determined that nomination reform was the best means to achieve progress in the most dysfunctional of all Congresses. In late November, Democrats moved to end the 60 vote threshold for executive and judicial nominations, allowing for simple majority votes on all nominations going forward.

Many pundits have insisted that Republicans have many other means to slow down the process and that Democrats should be concerned about losing control of the Senate in 2014, effectively nullifying the purpose of this reform (though this is an entirely different issue for another diary). Despite these concerns, Senate Democrats have already pushed through a bunch of "contentious" and very important nominations, and if they keep up this determination and pace in the coming year, the above concerns might be irrelevant in the near future. Senate Democrats have voted almost entirely in unison on all of these votes (including many Senators with tough reelections next year), and all of these nominations would have failed if Senate Democrats hadn't reformed the filibuster last month. Continue below the fold to read about the nominees confirmed since filibuster reform was enacted, as well as why their confirmations matter.

The last few years, there have been many open seats on the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, often considered the most important court in the country below the Supreme Court because it often gets the final say on the decisions, actions, and rulemaking of independent agencies of the US government (think CIA, EPA, FCC, FEC, NLRB, SEC, the Federal Reserve, etc.). Thus, having Democratic-appointed judges on this court is extremely important in the interpretation of national policy. It is also considered a major stepping stone to becoming a Supreme Court Justice: John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Ruth Bader Ginsberg all served on this court prior to their Supreme Court service. President Obama had been denied appointments to any of the court's vacant seats in his entire first term in office, though Sri Srinivasan was finally confirmed earlier this year by unanimous vote. The filling of the three remaining vacant seats on this court was crucial to filibuster reform because Republicans refused to allow Obama to appoint anymore judges to this court regardless of the nominees' merits.

Because of these factors, Democrats devoted their first post-reform confirmation vote to Patricia Millett, who was finally confirmed to the DC Circuit Court of Appeals by a 56-38 vote (all Democrats in favor; all Republicans except Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski opposed; for the sake of expedience, absent votes will not be noted). It's worth remembering that Patricia Millett was just confirmed to fill John Roberts' seat. That's right. This seat has been vacant since Roberts' appointment to the Supreme Court more than eight years ago. Nina Pillard was soon confirmed to the court as well. Cloture Vote: 56-42 (all Democrats except Joe Manchin in favor; all Republicans except Collins and Murkowski opposed). Final Vote: 51-44 (all Democrats except Joe Donnelly, Manchin, and Mark Pryor in favor; all Republicans opposed). Robert Willkins is the final nominee to the court and should receive a confirmation vote sometime in early 2014. It's worth noting that all four of President Obama's nominees to this court are about 50 year old, a sweet spot for potential Supreme Court nominees. It's quite possible that one of these four people could be a Supreme Court Justice in the next few years if a vacancy presents itself, giving Democrats many solid nomination options that weren't present just a year ago.

Representative Mel Watt (D-NC) was confirmed as the Director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which has oversight for the Federal Housing Administration, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac, among other crucial duties. He will likely be a big improvement over his predecessor Edward DeMarco, though this doesn't really say much considering DeMarco's tenure. Watt's appointment has set off a special election for his House seat that should be settled in early 2014. Cloture Vote: 57-40 (all Democrats in favor; all Republicans except Richard Burr and Rob Portman opposed). Final Vote: 57-41 (all Democrats in favor; all Republicans except Burr and Portman opposed).

Another significant success for LGBT rights was achieved in getting Chai Feldblum reappointed to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. This article sums up Feldblum's history very well, being the first openly LGBT member of the Commission and shepherding through transgender/gender identity workplace protections last year. While this sounds like a fairly innocuous position, it could play a very important role in the coming years. If the Employment Non-Discrimination Act becomes law in the next few years, the EEOC would be a key player in its implementation, and Feldblum would certainly be at the forefront in ensuring that everyone gets a fair shot and a fair shake in the workplace. Cloture Vote: 57-39 (all Democrats in favor; all Republicans except Collins and Murkowski opposed). Final Vote: 54-41 (all Democrats in favor; all Republicans except Collins and Murkowski opposed). It's worth noting that all five members of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have been appointed or reappointed under President Obama.

Elizabeth Wolford was confirmed as a District Judge for the Western District of New York, though her confirmation further shows how callous Republicans have been with the procedural process. The cloture vote was a pretty standard 55-41 vote (all Democrats in favor; all Republicans except Collins and Murkowski opposed), but the final confirmation vote was a mind-boggling 70-29 vote, with all Democrats being joined by 15 Republicans. The Western District of New York is now filled and is evenly split in partisan appointments.

Landya McCafferty was confirmed as a US District Judge for the District of New Hampshire. Cloture Vote: 58-40 (all Democrats in favor; all Republicans except Kelly Ayotte, Collins, and Murkowski opposed). Final Vote: 79-19 (all Democrats plus 24 Republicans in favor, including Coburn, Cruz, Grassley, Johnson, Lee, Paul, and Rubio; Senate Republicans aren't even trying to hide their callousness anymore). The District of New Hampshire is now filled, though still 2-1 Republican appointments. She will be the first woman to serve on this court.

Patricia Wald was confirmed as a Member of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. The cloture vote and final confirmation vote broke down the same: 57-41 (all Democrats in favor; all Republicans except Collins and Murkowski opposed). It's questionable if she'll be able to serve the full five-year term considering she's already 85, but if her past work is any indication, she should continue being a very effective and important voice on this board.

Brian Morris and Susan Watters were both confirmed as US District Judges for the District of Montana. Morris' Cloture Vote: 57-40 (all Democrats in favor; all Republicans except Collins, Orrin Hatch, and Murkowski opposed). Morris' Final Vote: 75-20 (all Democrats plus 20 Republicans in favor). Watters' Cloture Vote: 58-39 (all Democrats in favor; all Republicans except Collins, Hatch, and Murkowski opposed). Watters' Final Vote: 77-19 (all Democrats plus 23 Republicans in favor). Morris is currently a Montana Supreme Court Justice, and his new job will create a vacancy that Democratic Governor Steve Bullock will have to fill in the coming weeks. Watters will be the new District Judge for Billings, replacing the vacant seat of Richard Cebull, who infamously sent out racist jokes about Obama through his state email address and retired earlier this year. The District of Montana is now filled, with all three judges being Obama appointments.

Deborah Lee James was confirmed as Secretary of the Air Force. Cloture Vote: 58-39 (all Democrats in favor; all Republicans except Collins, Hatch, and Murkowski opposed). Final Vote: 79-6 (all Democrats plus 29 Republicans in favor). She will be the second woman to head the Air Force. There is a distinct possibility that she could devote much of her work to eliminating sexual abuse in the Air Force wherever possible, though she's a fairly blank slate (there isn't even a Wikipedia page about her!). I'd be interested to know why McCain was one of those six "no" votes.

Heather Higginbottom was confirmed as Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources. Cloture Vote: 51-34 (all Democrats in favor; all Republicans except Collins and Murkowski opposed). Final Vote: 74-17 (all Democrats plus 21 Republicans in favor).

Anne Patterson was confirmed as Assistant Secretary of State (Near Eastern Affairs). Cloture Vote: 54-36 (all Democrats in favor; all Republicans except Collins and Murkowski opposed). Final Vote: 78-16 (all Democrats plus 23 Republicans in favor). She's had the pleasure of being our US Ambassador to Egypt since mid-2011 and has been at the heart of the diplomatic and revolutionary crisis, often being vilified by both the Muslim Brotherhood and secular protesters alike. This should be a relatively calm job for her.

Jeh Johnson was confirmed as Secretary of Homeland Security. Cloture Vote: 57-37 (all Democrats in favor; all Republicans except Collins and Murkowski opposed). Final Vote: 78-16 (all Democrats plus 23 Republicans in favor). Johnson has made several polarizing remarks in recent years, though his remarks about the need to step away from war indicate that he could be an effective Secretary as the War in Afghanistan winds down. Alejandro Mayorkas was confirmed as Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security. Cloture Vote: 55-45 (all Democrats in favor; all Republicans opposed). Final Vote: 54-41 (all Democrats in favor; all Republicans opposed).

John Koskinen was confirmed as Commissioner of Internal Revenue. Cloture Vote: 56-39 (all Democrats in favor; all Republicans except Collins and Hatch opposed). Final Vote: 59-36 (all Democrats in favor; all Republicans except Burr, Collins, Bob Corker, Hatch, and Portman opposed). There probably won't be another big "stink" under Koskinen's tenure of the IRS.

Brian Davis was confirmed as a US District Judge for the Middle District of Florida. Cloture Vote: 56-36 (all Democrats in favor; all Republicans except Collins and Murkowski opposed). Final Vote: 68-26 (all Democrats plus 14 Republicans in favor). The Middle District of Florida has one remaining vacancy (another seat becomes vacant in April) and is evenly split. President Obama can tilt the court our direction if he fills the remaining vacancies.

Last but not least, Janet Yellen sustained cloture in her nomination to become Chairwoman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. The cloture vote was 59-34 (all Democrats in favor; all Republicans except Collins, Corker, Hatch, Mark Kirk, and Murkowski opposed). She will likely be confirmed by the Senate in the first week of the new session. She is perhaps the most qualified person to hold this post in the entire country and should do a solid job, particularly considering the many challenges she is going to face.

Senate Democrats were able to push through all sixteen (almost seventeen) of these contentious confirmations in eleven days. All sixteen of these confirmations would have died from filibuster abuse because they failed to achieve 60 cloture votes. What's most striking is that nine of these confirmations (ten depending on Reid's health) were able to achieve 60+ votes in the final vote despite failing to achieve 60 cloture votes, demonstrating how callous Republicans have been with abuse of the filibuster. The actions of Harry Reid and Senate Democrats to limit the filibuster allowed all of these crucial nominations to move through the Senate and be confirmed. Senate Democrats are only getting started. There will be many more crucial confirmation votes in the coming year, and Harry Reid deserves a bunch of credit for shredding the filibuster to allow these confirmations to move through. Credit should also be given to the whole Democratic caucus, who have stuck together to push all of these votes with only the occasional defection or two (Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski also deserve some credit for sticking with Democrats on most confirmation votes).

At least when it comes to executive and judicial nominations, the Senate is starting to work again. Thank you, Senate Democrats. Filibuster reform has already made a big difference, and it's only going to get bigger as we move forward into 2014.


Do you believe it was a good idea to eliminate the 60-vote filibuster threshold for Presidential nominations?

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