In elementary school, I was taught that presidents serve four-year terms.
Apparently that number is off by three — or so I’ve learned recently from listening to Republican politicians.
See, according to former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), the first year of a president’s term doesn’t really count. After all, both have argued that George W. Bush “kept us safe,” suggesting that 9/11 didn’t stain W’s otherwise spotless safety record because it occurred too early in his presidency.
Also, according to Republican Senate leadership, the last year of a president’s term doesn’t count either; that’s why President Obama shouldn’t get to nominate a replacement for late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
Finally, it turns out the second-to-last year of a president’s term also doesn’t count. How can you tell? Because Republican senators obstructed nearly all of Obama’s judicial picks last year, too. And obviously — per their recent rhetoric about Scalia’s successor — they would have only done that in a year when the president was already a lame duck.
By process of elimination, then, U.S. presidents really serve one-year terms, occurring just once every four years. The other three-quarters of the time, presidents presumably disappear into the ether, like Brigadoon.
Seriously though, I’ve been puzzled by how much of the should-Obama-get-to-choose-a-judge debate has been framed as a last-year-of-presidency issue. Republicans’ strategy of blocking everything this president wants to do, and everyone he wants to appoint, did not exactly begin when we rang in the recent new year.
It may be convenient for Republicans to blame their latest bout of obstructionism on some unwritten election-year rule, but it’s also pretty bogus. Republicans were just as dedicated to Confirmationus Interruptus in 2015.
Last year, the Republican-controlled Senate confirmed just 11 federal judges, the fewest in any year since 1960. Only one appeals court judge was confirmed, the lowest number since 1953.
As a result, there are 76 vacancies (including Scalia’s) for Article III judgeships, nearly twice as many as there were when Republicans regained Senate control in January 2015.
Another way to measure just how aggressively Republicans have obstructed the judicial confirmation process is to look at the number of “judicial emergencies,” a term used when judges can’t keep up with growing caseloads. That figure has nearly tripled over the past year, from 12 in January 2015 to 31 today.
Republican senators have created at least four choke points in the confirmation pipeline.
In some cases, they’ve delayed setting up the local committees that vet possible nominees. Sen. Ted Cruz, and his fellow Republican senator from Texas, John Cornyn, have used such delays to make their state ground zero for judicial emergencies.
Elsewhere, Republicans refuse to return “blue slips,” the century-old forms that give home-state senators an effective veto over any judicial nominee. In some instances, senators have publicly endorsed a candidate but then never actually delivered this paperwork, which is necessary for the nominee to get a confirmation hearing. Rubio, for example, publicly recommended Mary Barzee Flores to fill a district court vacancy in Florida. But nearly a year after Obama nominated her, Rubio still hasn’t returned his blue slip.
In other cases, the Senate Judiciary Committee has received blue slips, but delayed holding hearings or votes on nominees; or Senate leadership has put off floor confirmation votes.
The nominees in question don’t look especially controversial or unqualified either. Last year’s lucky 11 judges waited an average of 283 days between their initial nomination and a confirmation vote, according to the Alliance for Justice, a coalition of mostly liberal advocacy organizations. But when they were confirmed, 10 of the 11 were approved with either unanimous or near-unanimous support from both parties.
Senate obstructionism isn’t reserved for judicial branch openings alone. A January analysis from Politico found that more than a quarter of the administration’s most senior executive branch jobs — more than 100 overall — were missing permanent occupants. It also reported that the Senate in 2015 confirmed the fewest civilian nominations for the first session of a Congress in nearly three decades.
Meanwhile, senators congratulate themselves for getting back to the business of governing.
“I think I can safely say here,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) proclaimed recently, that “at the end of the first year of this new majority, dysfunction is over.”
Hmm. Maybe it’s not the president who’s been vacationing in Brigadoon all this time.