Being Right: On Changing Norms in the U.S. Senate

Marc Moreira, Maroon-News Staff

On April 3, the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) used a procedural vote to change the 60-vote threshold needed to overcome debate time. Additionally, it lowered the threshold needed to pass non-Cabinet-level executives and district court nominations to a simple majority. While the Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, a Democrat from New York, would like to make it seem as though this was a dark and gloomy day in the history of the Senate, the irony is that the Minority Leader has prided himself in obstructing the nomination process of federal nominees.

The most jarring example of the Minority Leader priding himself in the filibuster was in 2003 during the battle to nominate Miguel Estrada for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Immediately after his nomination in May of 2001, Democrats, including the now Minority Leader, for the first time in the history of the Senate, used a filibuster to block his approval. Not only did Estrada have extensive experience that made him exceptionally qualified, but as a Honduran immigrant, he would have been the first Hispanic to sit on the court. Regardless, the Minority Leader made it very clear that, as he said himself, “I am the leader of the filibuster movement and I am proud of it.”

With incredible statements like this, it becomes difficult to take the Democratic Minority Leader in good faith today when he attempts to allude that cloture debate was used to legitimately question candidates when the Minority Leader has used it as a political tactic to block nominations during the President George W. Bush’s tenure.

During Obama’s tenure, Republicans in the Senate were notorious in their efforts to filibuster Obama’s nominees. From this frustration, Senate Democrats were seemingly justified in 2013 when then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid changed the rules in the same way that Mitch McConnell just did. They voiced the same concerns that Republicans are raising now in the tactics used by the minority party in simply blocking nominees with whom they disagreed. So, if Democrats were justified in changing the rules in 2013, how are Republicans not justified in doing the same thing now?

Ultimately, members of both parties have to concede that any given President has the right to nominate individuals to serve in their government. The Senate should still maintain the open debate to which it is accustomed, a style that is only possible due to the Senate’s small size relative to the House of Representatives. However, engaging in traditional, time-consuming open debate should only be in the conventional committee setting and when legitimate issues arise, such as lack of experience presented by a nominee. Such is the case with President Trump’s nominee for district court judge, Matthew Petersen.

Unfortunately, with the rise in partisanship and party discipline, I doubt the Senate will ever get to a point where it will be able to vote on Supreme Court nominees on margins such as those we saw for Ginsburg and Souter, 96-3 and 90-9, respectively. In this modern age of polarization, it seems fair to say that changing the rules of the Senate is a natural progression and a necessary step to ensure proper governmental function.

Contact Marc Moreira at [email protected].