October 29, 2013
Lindsey Graham Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Lindsey Graham Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Now that we’ve purchased a few more months of breathing room before the next budget crisis, the locus of debate over actual policy progress moves back to the Senate. Right on cue, after 60 Minutes’ new special on Benghazi, which revealed that there were serious security lapses at the consulate, Lindsey Graham announced he would block all Senate nominations until he hears from the Benghazi survivors.

This is a prime reminder of the fact that the Senate — and therefore, the filibuster — will largely determine the fate of any actual forward progress in American government. If Senate Republicans retain their power to block anything and everything, especially nominations, huge swathes of President Obama’s domestic legacy will be jeopardized.

As it happens, Lara Logan’s 60 Minutes report was a mess. The angle was breathlessly uncovering a colossal scandal, but as Kevin Drum ably demonstrates, every major issue raised had already been hashed and rehashed to death months ago, and what little new Logan found was barely relevant. And Graham’s demand that the survivors be “made available” is also bogus. Though the State and Justice Departments have asked that security officials not be subpoenaed (non-security people are free to testify), for fear of screwing up future prosecutions, it’s only a request. Already Darrell Issa subpoenaed two Diplomatic Security officials earlier this month, where they gave closed-door testimony.

So Graham is blowing smoke. But this is not remotely surprising. All the recent shenanigans over the House GOP have rather overshadowed the fact that during President Obama’s first term, especially the critical first two years when he had huge majorities in both houses of Congress, the Senate was a block of Portland cement in the windpipe of his domestic agenda. Republicans filibustered almost every single piece of legislation that came up for discussion. A few gulps of air managed to sneak past (after literally months of straining), but all kinds of great stuff passed through the House and died ignominiously on the Senate’s calcified procedural blocks. Seriously, take a look at this list sometime and try not to weep. We could have had a climate bill. And let’s not forget that before the filibuster (which means “hijacking,” by the way, and is a complete historical accident) evolved into an all-purpose election-cancelling device, its main purpose was blocking civil rights legislation.

This isn’t to say there is no possibility for progress. There is, via executive action: Obamacare is still trudging forward, the EPA is currently making a regulatory push against carbon dioxide, and most importantly, the Federal Reserve could take new action against unemployment.

But aside from getting Janet Yellen safely ensconced at the Fed, most of this will require fighting a vicious bureaucratic and legal trench war. And getting nominees through the Senate will be absolutely crucial to long term Dem successes. Second from the Fed, probably the most important thing is getting Democrats into the three empty seats at the DC Circuit Court, which has jurisdiction over federal agencies. As Haley Sweetland Edwards brilliantly demonstrated, this is a key venue where conservatives, allied with vested interests, tear laws to bits and delay new regulations through ludicrous legal chicanery. The DC Circuit is evenly balanced between Democrats and Republicans, and Chuck Grassley is trying to get rid of the three empty seats so it will stay that way.

There are various procedural arguments against changing the filibuster, but really all it takes is determination and the support of the Senate President (Joe Biden). The real issue seems to be various Democratic foot-dragging. Harry Reid and other Senate Democrats don’t seem like they’ve come to terms with the nearly total-dysfunction of the Senate confirmation process, and President Obama has been inexcusably lax about filling his nomination roster. It’s time for both to take the issue in hand — their legacies are in the balance.