Politics & Policy

Crisis Mode

A fair and constitutional option to beat the filibuster game.

Judicial nominations will be one of the most important issues facing the Senate in the 109th Congress and the question is whether we will return to the tradition of giving nominations reaching the Senate floor an up or down vote. The filibusters used to block such votes have mired the judicial-confirmation process in a political and constitutional crisis that undermines democracy, the judiciary, the Senate, and the Constitution. The Senate has in the past changed its procedures to rebalance the minority’s right to debate and the majority’s right to decide and it must do so again.

Newspaper editorials condemning the filibusters outnumber supporting ones by more than six-to-one. Last November, South Dakotans retired former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, in no small part, because he led the filibuster forces. Yet within hours of his election to succeed Senator Daschle as Minority Leader, Senator Harry Reid took to the Senate floor to defend them. Hope is fading that the shrinking Democratic minority will abandon its destructive course of using filibusters to defeat majority supported judicial nominations. Their failure to do so will require a deliberate solution.

DIAGNOSING THE CRISIS

If these filibusters were part of the Senate’s historical practice or, as a recent NRO editorial put it, merely made confirming nominees more difficult, a deliberate solution might not be warranted. But this is a crisis, not a problem of inconvenience.

Senate rules reflect an emphasis on deliberation and debate. Either by unanimous agreement or at least 60 votes on a motion to invoke cloture under Rule 22, the Senate must end debate before it can vote on anything. From the Spanish filibustero, a filibuster was a mercenary who tries to destabilize a government. A filibuster occurs most plainly on the Senate floor when efforts to end debate fail, either by objection to unanimous consent or defeat of a cloture motion. During the 108th Congress, Senate Democrats defeated ten majority-supported nominations to the U.S. Court of Appeals by objecting to every unanimous consent request and defeating every cloture motion. This tactic made good on then-Democratic Leader Tom Daschle’s February 2001 vow to use “whatever means necessary” to defeat judicial nominations. These filibusters are unprecedented, unfair, dangerous, partisan, and unconstitutional.

A Political Crisis

These are the first filibusters in American history to defeat majority supported judicial nominations. Before the 108th Congress, 13 of the 14 judicial nominations on which the Senate took a cloture vote were confirmed. President Johnson withdrew the 1968 nomination of Abe Fortas to be Supreme Court chief justice the day after a failed cloture vote showed the nomination did not have clear majority support. In contrast, Democrats have now crossed the confirmation Rubicon by using the filibuster to defeat judicial nominations which enjoy clear majority support.

Focusing on President Clinton’s judicial nominations in 1999, I described what has been the Senate’s historical standard for judicial nominations: “Let’s make our case if we have disagreement, and then vote.” Democrats’ new filibusters abandons this tradition and is unfair to senators who must provide the “advice and consent” the Constitution requires of them through a final up or down vote. It is also unfair to nominees who have agreed, often at personal and financial sacrifice, to judicial service only to face scurrilous attacks, trumped up charges, character assassination, and smear campaigns. They should not also be held in permanent filibuster limbo. Senators can vote for or against any judicial nominee for any reason, but senators should vote.

These unprecedented and unfair filibusters are distorting the way the Senate does business. Before the 108th Congress, cloture votes were used overwhelmingly for legislation rather than nominations. The percentage of cloture votes used for judicial nominations jumped a whopping 900 percent during President Bush’s first term from the previous 25 years since adoption of the current cloture rule. And before the 108th Congress, the few cloture votes on judicial nominations were sometimes used to ensure up or down votes. Even on controversial nominees such as Richard Paez and Marsha Berzon, we invoked cloture to ensure that we would vote on confirmation. We did, and both are today sitting federal judges. In contrast, these new Democratic filibusters are designed to prevent, rather than secure, an up or down vote and to ensure that targeted judicial nominations are defeated rather than debated.

These filibusters are also completely partisan. The average tally on cloture votes during the 108th Congress was 53-43, enough to confirm but not enough to invoke cloture and end debate. Democrats provided every single vote against permitting an up or down vote. In fact, Democrats have cast more than 92 percent of all votes against cloture on judicial nominations in American history.

A Constitutional Crisis

Unprecedented, unfair, and partisan filibusters that distort Senate procedures constitute a political crisis. By trying to use Rule 22’s cloture requirement to change the Constitution’s confirmation requirement, these Democratic filibusters also constitute a constitutional crisis.

The Constitution gives the Senate authority to determine its procedural rules. More than a century ago, however, the Supreme Court unanimously recognized the obvious maxim that those rules may not “ignore constitutional restraints.” The Constitution explicitly requires a supermajority vote for such things as trying impeachments or overriding a presidential veto; it does not do so for confirming nominations. Article II, Section 2, even mentions ratifying treaties and confirming nominees in the very same sentence, requiring a supermajority for the first but not for the second. Twisting Senate rules to create a confirmation supermajority undermines the Constitution. As Senator Joseph Lieberman once argued, it amounts to “an amendment of the Constitution by rule of the U.S. Senate.”

But don’t take my word for it. The same senators leading the current filibuster campaign once argued that all filibusters are unconstitutional. Senator Lieberman argued in 1995 that a supermajority requirement for cloture has “no constitutional basis.” Senator Tom Harkin insisted that “the filibuster rules are unconstitutional” because “the Constitution sets out…when you need majority or supermajority votes in the Senate.” And former Senator Daschle said that because the Constitution “is straightforward about the few instances in which more than a majority of the Congress must vote….Democracy means majority rule, not minority gridlock.” He later applied this to judicial nomination filibusters: “I find it simply baffling that a Senator would vote against even voting on a judicial nomination.” That each of these senators voted for every judicial-nomination filibuster during the 108th Congress is baffling indeed.

These senators argued that legislative as well as nomination filibusters are unconstitutional. Filibusters of legislation, however, are different and solving the current crisis does not require throwing the entire filibuster baby out with the judicial nomination bathwater. The Senate’s authority to determine its own rules is greatest regarding what is most completely within its jurisdiction, namely, legislation. And legislative filibusters have a long history. Rule 22 itself did not even potentially apply to nominations until decades after its adoption. Neither America’s founders, nor the Senate that adopted Rule 22 to address legislative gridlock, ever imagined that filibusters would be used to highjack the judicial appointment process.

TRYING TO CHANGE THE SUBJECT

Liberal interest groups, and many in the mainstream media, eagerly repeat Democratic talking points trying to change, rather than address, the subject. For example, they claim that, without the filibuster, the Senate would be nothing more than a “rubberstamp” for the president’s judicial nominations. Losing a fair fight, however, does not rubberstamp the winner; giving up without a fight does. Active opposition to a judicial nomination, especially expressed through a negative vote, is the best remedy against being a rubberstamp.

They also try to change the definition of a filibuster. On March 11, 2003, for example, Senator Patrick Leahy, ranking Judiciary Committee Democrat, used a chart titled “Republican Filibusters of Nominees.” Many individuals on the list, however, are today sitting federal judges, some confirmed after invoking cloture and others without taking a cloture vote at all. Invoking cloture and confirming nominations is no precedent for not invoking cloture and refusing to confirm nominations.

Many senators once opposed the very judicial nomination filibusters they now embrace. Senator Leahy, for example, said in 1998: “I have stated over and over again…that I would object and fight against any filibuster on a judge, whether it is somebody I opposed or supported.” Since then, he has voted against cloture on judicial nominations 21 out of 26 times. Senator Ted Kennedy, a former chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said in 1995 that “Senators who believe in fairness will not let a minority of the Senate deny [the nominee] his vote by the entire Senate.” Since then, he has voted to let a minority of the Senate deny judicial nominees a vote 18 out of 23 times.

Let me put my own record on the table. I have never voted against cloture on a judicial nomination. I opposed filibusters of Carter and Clinton judicial nominees, Reagan and Bush judicial nominees, all judicial nominees. Along with then-Majority Leader Trent Lott, I repeatedly warned that filibustering Clinton judicial nominees would be a “travesty” and helped make sure that every Clinton judicial nomination reaching the full Senate received a final confirmation decision. That should be the permanent standard, no matter which party controls the Senate or occupies the White House.

SOLVING THE CRISIS

The Senate has periodically faced the situation where the minority’s right to debate has improperly overwhelmed the majority’s right to decide. And we have changed our procedures in a way that preserves the minority’s right to debate, and even to filibuster legislation, while solving the crisis at hand.

The Senate’s first legislative rules, adopted in 1789, directly reflected majority rule. Rule 8 allowed a simple majority to “move the previous question” and proceed to vote on a pending matter. Invoked only three times in 17 years, however, Rule 8 was dropped in the Senate rules revision of 1806, meaning unanimous consent was then necessary to end debate. Dozens of reform efforts during the 19th century tried to rein in the minority’s abuse of the right to debate. In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson described what had become of majority rule: “The Senate of the United States is the only legislative body in the world which cannot act when its majority is ready for action…. The only remedy is that the rules of the Senate shall be altered.” Leadership turned gridlock into reform, and that year the Senate adopted Rule 22, by which 2/3 of Senators present and voting could invoke cloture, or end debate, on a pending measure.

Just as the minority abused the unanimous consent threshold in the 19th century, the minority abused the 2/3 threshold in the 20th century. A resolution to reinstate the previous question rule was introduced, and only narrowly defeated, within a year of Rule 22’s adoption. A steady stream of reform attempts followed, and a series of modifications made until the current 60-vote threshold was adopted in 1975. The point is that the Senate has periodically rebalanced the minority’s right to debate and the majority’s right to decide. Today’s crisis, with constitutional as well as political dimensions and affecting all three branches of government, presents an even more compelling case to do so.

These filibusters are an unprecedented shift in the kind, not just the degree, of the minority’s tactics. After a full, fair, and vigorous debate on judicial nominations, a simple majority must at some point be able to proceed to a vote. A simple majority can achieve this goal either by actually amending Rule 22 or by sustaining an appropriate parliamentary ruling.

A Simple Majority Can Change the Rules

The Senate exercises its constitutional authority to determine its procedural rules either implicitly or explicitly. Once a new Congress begins, operating under existing rules implicitly adopts them “by acquiescence.” The Senate explicitly determines its rules by formally amending them, and the procedure depends on its timing. After Rule 22 has been adopted by acquiescence, it requires 67 votes for cloture on a rules change. Before the Senate adopts Rule 22 by acquiescence, however, ordinary parliamentary rules apply and a simple majority can invoke cloture and change Senate rules.

Some object to this conclusion by observing that, because only a portion of its membership changes with each election, the Senate has been called a “continuing body.” Yet language reflecting this observation was included in Senate rules only in 1959. The more important, and much older, sense in which the Senate is a continuing body is its ongoing constitutional authority to determine its rules. Rulings by vice presidents of both parties, sitting as the President of the Senate, confirm that each Senate may make that decision for itself, either implicitly by acquiescence or explicitly by amendment. Both conservative and liberal legal scholars, including those who see no constitutional problems with the current filibuster campaign, agree that a simple majority can change Senate rules at the beginning of a new Congress.

A Simple Majority Can Uphold a Parliamentary Ruling

An alternative strategy involves a parliamentary ruling in the context of considering an individual nomination. This approach can be pursued at any time, and would not actually amend Rule 22. The precedent it would set depends on the specific ruling it produces and the facts of the situation in which it arises.

Speculation, often inaccurate, abounds about how this strategy would work. One newspaper, for example, offered a common description that this approach would seek “a ruling from the Senate parliamentarian that the filibuster of executive nominations is unconstitutional.” Under long-standing Senate parliamentary precedent, however, the presiding officer does not decide such constitutional questions but submits them to the full Senate, where they are debatable and subject to Rule 22’s 60-vote requirement. A filibuster would then prevent solving this filibuster crisis. Should the chair rule in favor of a properly framed non-debatable point of order, Democrats would certainly appeal, but the majority could still sustain the ruling by voting for a non-debatable motion to table the appeal.

Democrats have threatened that, if the majority pursues a deliberate solution to this political and constitutional crisis, they will bring the entire Senate to a screeching halt. Perhaps they see this as way to further escalate the confirmation crisis, as the Senate cannot confirm judicial nominations if it can do nothing at all. No one, however, seriously believes that, if the partisan roles were reversed, Democrats – the ones who once proposed abolishing even legislative filibusters – would hesitate for a moment before changing Senate procedures to facilitate consideration of judicial nominations they favored.

A FAMILIAR FORK IN THE ROAD

The United States Senate is a unique institution. Our rules allowing for extended debate protect the minority’s role in the legislative process. We must preserve that role. The current filibuster campaign against judicial nominations, however, is the real attack on Senate tradition and an unprecedented example of placing short-term advantage above longstanding fundamental principles. It is not simply annoying or frustrating, but a new and dangerous kind of obstruction which threatens democracy, the Senate, the judiciary, and even the Constitution itself. As such, it requires a more serious and deliberate solution.

While judicial appointments can be politically contentious and ideologically divisive, the confirmation process must still be handled through a fair process that honors the Constitution and Senate tradition. If the fight is fair and constitutional, let the chips fall where they may. As it has before, the Senate must change its procedures to properly balance majority rule and extended debate. That way, we can vigorously debate judicial nominations and still conduct the people’s business.

The Honorable Orrin G. Hatch is a Republican senator to the United States Senate from Utah. Senator Hatch is former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Orrin Hatch — Orrin G. Hatch is the chairman emeritus of the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation. A Utah Republican, he served on the Senate Judiciary Committee from 1977–2019.

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