From the founding of the Republic until the beginning of the current Congress, the Senate voted to break a filibuster on a president’s nominee only 89 times. Nearly one quarter of all of these were Senate Republican filibusters of President Obama’s nominees. No senate minority in American history was as aggressive in filibustering presidential nominees as the minority led by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
Lest there be any doubt, this kind of obstructionism does far more than simply frustrate President Obama — it denies the American people a fully functioning government and discourages the most talented potential nominees from seeking government jobs in the first place. Here are just a few of the most exceptional nominees blocked by the Senate’s nonsensical filibuster rules:
1) Peter Diamond (Federal Reserve Board of Governors)
In 2010, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) placed a hold on MIT Economics Professor Peter Diamond’s nomination to the Federal Reserve Board because he deemed Diamond too unqualified to sit on the board. A few months later, Diamond won the Nobel Prize in Economics. Nevertheless, Shelby clung to his efforts to keep Diamond off the Fed board, and the Nobel Prize winning economist eventually withdrew his nomination. In an op-ed explaining his withdraw, Diamond warned that “we should all worry about how distorted the confirmation process has become, and how little understanding of monetary policy there is among some of those responsible for its Congressional oversight. . . . Skilled analytical thinking should not be drowned out by mistaken, ideologically driven views that more is always better or less is always better. I had hoped to bring some of my own expertise and experience to the Fed. Now I hope someone else can.”
2) Joseph Smith (Federal Housing Finance Agency)
In November 2010, President Obama nominated Joseph A. Smith Jr., then North Carolina’s longtime Commissioner of Banks, to head the independent FHFA. Though the Senate Banking Committee overwhelmingly endorsed his nomination, on a 16-6 vote, Senate Republicans blocked a confirmation vote and scuttled his nomination by running out the clock. Sen. Richard Shelby’s (R-AL), fearing Smith might help underwater homeowners with mortgage principal reductions, opposed him and called him “a tool of the administration, cutting mortgages, throwing the bill to the taxpayers.” As a result of this obstruction, FHFA Acting Director Edward DeMarco — the deputy to President George W. Bush’s director — continues to run the agency and has single-handedly blocked White House mortgage debt relief efforts. More than a quarter of Americans with home mortgages are currently underwater, owing more to the lender than their property is currently worth.
3) Caitlin Halligan (United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit)
Caitlin Halligan is one of the nation’s best attorneys. Halligan is a former Supreme Court law clerk, a former Solicitor General of the state of New York, the former head of appellate litigation at one of the nation’s top law firms and is currently general counsel for one of the largest prosecutor’s offices in the country. Halligan taught constitutional law at Columbia Law School. She received the highest possible rating from the American Bar Association. And her nomination to the federal bench enjoys the support of some of the nation’s top Supreme Court advocates, many of whom are Republicans. Yet her nomination has languished for more than two years despite the fact that Senate Republicans have barely even managed to articulate a case against Halligan’s confirmation. Indeed, the best her opponents have come up with is a complaint that she argued positions the National Rifle Association disagrees with on behalf of her former client — the state of New York. Apparently, the NRA gets to veto judges now.
4) John J. Sullivan (Federal Election Commission)
In 2009, when President Obama nominated Sullivan , a respected labor lawyer, to replace a Democratric FEC Commissioner whose term expired two years earlier, his nomination received praise from campaign finance reform advocates and opponents. The Senate Rules and Administration Committee unanimously recommended his nomination, with the panel’s top Republican endorsing Sullivan as “eminently well-qualified for this position.” Though neither actually opposed the nomination, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and then-Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) placed a “hold” on the nomination — essentially announcing their intention to force a time-consuming cloture vote with a 60 vote super-majority threshold — demanding the administration also replace other members of the gridlocked Commission. After 15 months without a vote, Sullivan asked the White House to withdraw his nomination and lamented a “broken system.” “The problem with cloture,” Sullivan noted, “is not the vote but the amount of floor time it takes in the Senate. It is an incredible distraction to occupy the Senate with a nomination like mine with so many other pressing matters on the floor.” Two years later, not one of the five FEC commissioners serving on expired terms has been replaced.
5) Dawn Johnsen (Department of Justice, Office of Legal Counsel)
Before even taking the oath of office, President Obama announced that Dawn Johnsen, an outspoken opponent of torture, would lead the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). In this role, she would lead the same office that produced the infamous “torture memos” justifying this illegal practice during the Bush Administration. Johnsen headed the same office during the Clinton Administration, and she co-authored a set of principles for future OLC attorneys to ensure that a repeat of the torture memos did not occur. Senate Republicans filibustered her nomination, fixating in their rhetoric on her record as an attorney defending abortion rights before she entered government service, but Johnsen herself suspected a difference motive. In a 2011 interview, Johnsen indicated that she was blocked in an attempt to score political points against Obama’s approach to terrorism.
Bonus: Richard Cordray (Consumer Financial Protection Bureau)
In July 2011, President Obama nominated Cordray, a former Ohio Attorney General, to be the first-ever director of the newly created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. A group of 44 Senate Republicans immediately announced that they would refuse to vote for Cordray or any nominee for the position, unless the independent agency was first defanged. That December, 45 Republicans blocked an up-or-down-vote on Cordray’s nomination, even though he had majority support and Republican opponents admitted he was qualified. President Obama recess appointed Cordray in January, but that only runs through the end of 2013.