The Real Roots of the Filibuster Crisis

We're about to have ourselves a little filibuster crisis, and the only surprising thing is that it took so long. We've now reached a point where Republicans no longer accept that Barack Obama has the right, as president of the United States, to fill judicial vacancies. Unlike in previous battles over judicial nominations, we're not talking about the nominees' qualifications or their ideological proclivities. It's merely a question of the president's constitutional privileges. Republicans don't think he has them. This is only the latest feature of a long descent for the GOP away from considering any Democratic president—but particularly this one—as a legitimate holder of the office to which he was elected.

There has never been a president, at least in our lifetimes, whose legitimacy was so frequently questioned in both word and deed by the opposition party and its adherents. Even today, many Republicans, including some members of Congress, refuse to believe that Obama was born in the United States. Right after he was re-elected, 49 percent of Republicans told pollsters they thought ACORN had stolen the election for Obama, a decline of only 3 points from the number that said so after the 2008 election, despite the fact that in the interim, ACORN had gone out of business. Think about that for a moment. How many times have you heard conservatives say that the Affordable Care Act was "rammed through" Congress, as though a year of debate and endless hearings and negotiations, followed by votes in both houses, followed by the president's signature, was somehow not a legitimate way to pass a law? In short, we've seen this again and again: it isn't just that Republicans consider Obama wrong about policy questions or object to the substance of one or another of his actions, it's as though they don't quite accept that he's the president, and everything he does carries for them the taint of illegitimacy.

If that's where you're coming from, it seems perfectly justifiable to upend the norms that have traditionally determined how things work in Washington. One of those norms is that while it's common to fight against the judicial nominees of a president from the other party, you have to at least have a gripe about each of those nominees. But Republicans are no longer bothering with that. The current argument is about three vacancies on the D.C. Court of Appeals, widely understood as the second most important court in the system, because it deals with many cases concerning government's powers (four of the nine current Supreme Court justices came there from the D.C. Circuit). Republicans argue that by attempting to fill those vacancies, Obama is engaged in an unconscionable act of "court-packing," and besides, the D.C. Circuit doesn't have enough work to do anyway, so the seats should just remain empty.

Until there's a Republican president, of course! Though they haven't said so explicitly, here's a suggestion for Capitol Hill reporters: Next time you're interviewing a Republican senator who says he's filibustering these nominations because the D.C. Circuit doesn't have enough work to do, ask him if he's willing to make a pledge, right there and on the record, to filibuster any appointment the next Republican president makes to that court. See what he says.

Anyhow, Harry Reid is now threatening to eliminate the filibuster for judicial nominees altogether, something he can do with a simple majority vote. But he'll need to get 50 of the 55 Senate Democrats to vote for it, and there's a good deal of reluctance to do so, particularly since Democrats won't be in the majority forever, and whenever they're back in the minority they'll want to have the filibuster for themselves. But according to recent reporting by Greg Sargent and others, Reid thinks he has the votes and is just about ready to pull the trigger if Republicans don't relent on these three nominees.

But the threat of the "nuclear option" of eliminating the filibuster for nominees could be just a negotiating tactic. The outcome Democrats would probably most prefer is what happened the last time we went through this, in 2005. In that case the controversy was over a group of Bush appointees who were true radicals, none more so than Janice Rogers Brown, who calls the New Deal a "socialist revolution" and says things like, "In the heyday of liberal democracy, all roads lead to slavery." That controversy ended with an agreement in which Bush got his nominees—Brown now sits on the D.C. Circuit—and Democrats promised to use the filibuster only in "extraordinary circumstances." In other words, it was a complete win for the Republicans. The biggest difference between then and now is that Democrats never questioned whether Bush had the right to fill judicial vacancies; they had specific objections to particular nominees.

In the various flare-ups of the birther controversy, reporters would occasionally ask Republican members of Congress very basic questions, like "Do you think the President was born in the United States?" The answers were incredibly revealing. Some simply said yes, but others hemmed and hawed, saying things like "It's not my responsibility to tell people what to think" or "I take him at his word," as though there were still some doubt. It's time they got asked the same kind of questions about this crisis. If you asked Republicans, "Does Barack Obama have the right to fill judicial vacancies?", I honestly have no idea what they'd say. But it would be interesting to find out.

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