To the Editor:
It has been a strange experience to watch Senator Lamar Alexander—a reasonable public servant for most of his career—go all Sarah Palin on us in apparent fear of a Tea Party-style challenge from his own Republican party in 2014. In his press release last week about the end of the 60-vote requirement for advancing judicial and executive nominations, the senator seemed to become completely unhinged, raving on about “tyranny” and “the end of the United States Senate.”
What Lamar was so exercised about was the Senate Democrats’ long-overdue action to require only a majority of 51, instead of a super-majority of 60, to end a filibuster and advance a presidential nomination (except for the Supreme Court) to a final vote on the merits. At the time of this action, 21 of the president’s nominees were either currently being filibustered or had tired of such treatment and withdrawn themselves from consideration.
This latter group included one of the best of the candidates, Caitlin Harrigan, a former New York State solicitor general, whom opponents characterized as some kind of radical for the ridiculous reason that she had filed a brief for her client opposing the gun industry in a particular case. Ms. Harrigan had been nominated for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., often referred to as the country’s second highest court because it rules on major regulatory appeals and matters involving national security and other questions of governmental authority.
Later, in November, Senate Republicans blocked three more nominees to the same court in rapid succession, under circumstances making it obvious they knew or cared nothing about the qualifications of those involved and had no credible basis for obstructing a vote on their confirmation. These nominees included Patricia Millett, who had argued more than 30 cases before the Supreme Court and had worked in both the Clinton and Bush administrations, and was a military spouse to boot; Cornelia Pillard, a law school professor and Supreme Court advocate who specialized in women’s rights (which Lamar and Sarah Palin would probably find too “activist”); and Robert Wilkins, an African-American judge previously confirmed by the Senate for the U.S. District Court in Washington but now apparently not good enough.
To the extent it was explained at all, Republican opposition to Millett, Pillard, and Wilkins was premised on the absurd and unsubstantiated claim that the three vacancies on the 11-member Court of Appeals did not need to be filled, despite the fact, of course, that Congress had created them in the first place. At around the same time, and with as little justification, Senate Republicans filibustered and then blocked the nomination of U.S. Representative Mel Watt of North Carolina to be director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which regulates the troubled Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac quasi-governmental behemoths. It was suggested that Watt, with more than 20 years on the U.S. House Financial Services Committee, did not have enough experience for the FHFA.
Finally, finally, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (and presumably the president) decided that they, and the nation, had endured enough abuse of the filibuster device and its 60-vote shield, whereupon the Senate, by a simple majority, changed the cut-off rule to 51. Recognizing that the filibuster can at times be a legitimate weapon against truly unconscionable or ill-considered congressional action, they left the 60-vote barrier in place for Supreme Court nominations and all non-appointment legislation. Still, Lamar now denounces this justified but minimal action as “the most dangerous and consequential change in the rules of the Senate since Thomas Jefferson wrote those rules”—in a word, “tyranny.” (Did Jefferson write any U.S. Senate rules? Don’t you have to be a senator to do that? Surely he did not write this one.)
Is it not tyranny for 80 members of the House of Representatives to terrorize the other 140 or so House Republicans and in many instances to use that leverage to immobilize the entire country? Was it not tyranny for 40 Senate Republicans routinely to use the 60-vote requirement to frustrate the president in matters great and small and to cripple for no or petty reasons the operation of the co-equal branches of government?
Was it not tyranny for congressional Republicans, by some accounts, to decide on day one of the Obama administration not to support but to obstruct virtually every presidential initiative, from the stimulus package that rescued the nation’s economy to necessary measures affecting immigration policy, climate change and the survival of the planet, and even minimal gun-control requirements after the tragic slaughter of schoolchildren in Connecticut (and similar incidents elsewhere)? And even if the administration’s handling of the Affordable Care Act has been less than a model of competence, was it not tyranny nonetheless to oppose and obstruct at every turn the passage, acceptance, and cooperative implementation of a duly enacted measure designed in good faith to improve the health and prolong the lives of our most vulnerable citizens?
Senator Alexander’s concept of “tyranny,” of the majority or otherwise, is a selective one indeed. It should be clear, and the history of this era will make it clear, that there has been enough tyranny and abuse of power to go around, mostly traceable to Tea Party and other Republicans who have pandered to the uninformed, served the interests of the well-to-do, and utterly failed to address the needs of the nation as a whole.
MICHAEL S. LOTTMAN Kingston Springs