This morning, Republicans blocked by filibuster the nomination of Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Fifty three senators voted to move ahead to a confirmation vote, and 45 opposed it; under Senate rules, 60 are needed to defeat a filibuster if the minority insists on one.
In other words, Cordray’s nomination has been halted by Senate Republicans, before a final vote, even though a majority of the Senate supports Cordray. Scott Brown was the only Republican to vote with yes. After the vote, Barack Obama quietly threatened a recess appointment, noting that every option is on the table. This would certainly be justified.
This episode is a reminder of just how radical and routine the GOP’s abuse of the filibuster has become.
Democrats have been saying that what happened today is unprecedented, because no minority party in the Senate has ever before decided to render an agency inoperative by refusing to allow up or down votes on any nominee to run it. But that still understates the radicalism of Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans.
Before 1989, solid partisan opposition to any executive branch nominee was very rare. It happened just a handful of times in the century before George H.W. Bush took office. With the Democrats’ defeat of Bush’s nomination for Secretary of Defense that year, John Tower, a new cycle of obstruction began. But even in that case, Dems didn’t employ a filibuster. They defeated Tower’s nomination with a majority vote. From then on, through the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, the blocking of exec branch nominations was still limited to a handful of high-profile cases.
The notion of filibustering multiple executive branch nominees was really something that began occasionally during the Clinton years. But even then, Republicans — and minority Democrats during the Bush years that followed — did not apply it across the board. It was understood as a valid reaction by the opposition, when it saw a nominee as particularly objectionable. For example, in 2003, the third year of George W. Bush’s presidency, there wasn’t a single cloture vote all year on an executive branch nomination.
These days, though, Republicans are using the filibuster against executive nominations as a routine partisan tactic, forcing every nominee to have 60 votes. This is a radical change in the way the Senate does its business.
What should Dems do about this? Barack Obama should fight back with recess appointments. And Senate Democrats should change the rules of the Senate to allow executive branch nominations to receive final, simple majority confirmation votes.
Hey, reporters! Routine partisan filibusters against executive branch nominations (and routine partisan filibusters in general) are a radical tactic that defies Senate and Constitutional norms as they were understood from the dawn of the republic up through 2008. Anyone writing about this stuff should keep that history in mind, and should accurately report just how radical the McConnnell Republicans have become.