Yesterday, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) single-handedly blocked the confirmation of 19 of President Obama’s judicial nominees, a power any single senator possesses under the Senate’s outdated rules. Sessions’ obstructionism is part of a concerted right-wing strategy to keep any of the president’s nominees from taking the bench. As a new Center for American Progress issue brief explains, judicial confirmations have fallen off a cliff since Obama took office:
Sessions attempts to dismiss this unambiguous data by claiming that Bush’s nominees waited longer than Obama’s for confirmation, but the data rebuts any claim that Bush’s judges were treated worse than the present president’s.
Judicial confirmations were unusually slow during the first two years of Bush’s presidency for reasons that are completely unrelated to Senate obstructionism. The Supreme Court didn’t install Bush until mid-December, giving the newly appointed president less time to plan for confirmations during his transition than prior presidents. Additionally, the Senate flipped from Republican to Democratic hands during Bush’s first year, forcing it to delay all business while it reorganized. Despite these two very unusual events, judicial confirmations at this point in Bush’s presidency were still nine percentage points higher than they are under Obama, and Bush’s confirmation rate spiked much higher during his next two years in office.
There’s a simple explanation for why Obama’s confirmation rate is so low: abuse of the filibuster and similar tactics such as holds. As CAP’s issue brief explains, the Senate Rules are practically designed to create a confirmation crisis:
The Senate’s arcane rules require nominees to clear several procedural hurdles before they can be confirmed. Most importantly, the Senate must agree to a “motion to proceed” to debate that nomination, and they have to take a confirmation vote at the conclusion of debate. Senators can filibuster either the motion to proceed or the confirmation vote itself.
Once a filibuster is broken, Senate rules still permit up to 30 hours of floor debate before taking a vote. The minority can therefore filibuster both the motion to proceed and the confirmation vote itself, and require up to 60 hours of floor debate before confirming a single nominee.
Forty-eight of President Obama’s judicial nominees await confirmation. At 60 hours per nominee, the Senate would have to spend 2,880 hours—120 entire days—to act on each of these nominations. If Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) were to cancel all recesses on August 1 and require the Senate to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, doing nothing but considering judicial nominees, the last nominee would not be confirmed until several days after Thanksgiving—and that’s assuming that the Senate passed no bills, confirmed no other nominees, and took up no other matters for this entire period!
Indeed, given such dysfunctional Senate Rules, the real surprise isn’t the fact that Obama’s nominees are being obstructed — it is that it took this long for such a confirmation crisis to emerge.