COLUMN: A brief respite from childishness

Farm Forum

Back in 1981, environmentalists were outraged when President-elect Ronald Reagan named James Watt as secretary of the interior. Democrats plied him with critical questions during his confirmation hearings but, when Reagan’s Cabinet was confirmed, the Senate voted 83-12 to approve Watt.

That was then; this is now:

Republican opposition to President Barack Obama’s environmental positions, especially his climate change agenda, prompted them to ask Gina McCarthy more than 1,000 questions before permitting a committee vote on her nomination to head the Cabinet-level Environmental Protection Administration. But they have prevented a Senate confirmation vote for months by threatening a filibuster needing 60 votes to stop.

The contrast between the Senate’s consideration of the Watt and McCarthy nominations illustrates how increased partisanship in the Senate led Majority Leader Harry Reid to threaten the so-called “nuclear option” rules change to require only a simple majority of 51 senators to approve nominations. That would have let the 54 Democrats prevail generally without Republican votes.

Republicans made a similar threat some years ago when they held the majority and Senate Democrats, including freshman Barack Obama, were threatening to filibuster judicial nominations by former President George W. Bush.

After a lengthy, private session Monday night, senators averted a showdown that might have worsened the Senate’s partisan acrimony. The GOP agreed to votes on five of the seven nominees, including McCarthy, and the Democrats agreed to replace the other two.

But the deal, while welcome, hardly solves the underlying problem, the way the losing side in elections — currently the Republicans — has sought to use both nominations and legislation to frustrate the victors, often by raising issues that had been previously resolved.

For example, the two-year GOP delay of Obama’s nomination of Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau was not really about the former Ohio attorney general’s qualifications but about opposition to the 2010 legislation creating a single head of that agency.

Indeed, before Tuesday’s 71-29 vote ending the delay on Cordray, Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., complained that, once he was approved, the Senate would lose control over the bureau because of the “lack of congressional oversight and lack of privacy prevention” in the law creating it.

Similarly, the battle over three nominees to the National Labor Relations Board was less about their qualifications than about how Obama installed them during a Senate recess after prior delays and how, as Democratic nominees, they tended to take took labor’s side.

As part of Tuesday’s deal, Democrats agreed to replace two of the three NLRB nominees, enabling the NLRB to keep functioning. The Senate then voted to let the Cordray nomination proceed with 17 Democrats joining the Democratic majority.

But how this will work in the future remains unclear.

The agreement doesn’t change the Senate’s rules, meaning it will still take 60 votes to cut off debate on nominations as well as legislation when a minority of senators either launches a full-fledged filibuster or merely threatens one, as has become the rule, rather than the exception.

Future fights on judicial nominations seem all but certain.

Back in the 1960s, when I covered the Senate for The Associated Press, filibusters were rare, reserved for issues of overriding importance like the sweeping civil rights bills debated and enacted in those years. But over time, outvoted minorities learned they could stop almost anything by threatening to filibuster the motions to consider them as well as the bills or nominations themselves. The late Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., was one of the initiators of this practice.

As the Senate has become more partisan and the two parties evolved from broad coalitions to more narrowly ideological, the minority increasingly used those tactics to frustrate the will of the majority.

While both parties share the blame, the practice has become the GOP minority’s principal modus operandi during the current administration. Including Tuesday’s vote, Senate Republicans have forced almost as many cloture votes to cut off debate on Obama’s nominees as both parties combined did in the previous 60 years.

So while Tuesday’s deal benefits Cordray and four of the other six stalemated nominees, and Reid called it “a new start for this body,” it seems unlikely to provide anything more than a temporary respite.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: