With A Functional Senate, Hope For Progressive Change Beyond Judiciary

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) will no longer have a veto on allĀ nominees
Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) will no longer have a veto on allĀ nominees

Thursday’s U.S. Senate vote to reign in the power of a recalcitrant minority to indefinitely block the president’s nominees from ever getting a confirmation vote will have a huge impact on the federal courts. But by allowing the majority of Senators to “advise and consent” on executive branch nominees — without giving Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) a virtual veto — this change could also allow major progressive change in an array of other areas.

In the last four campaign cycles, Americans have voted to give the Democratic Caucus in the U.S. Senate a majority — currently 55 to 45. But under the old rules, just 41 members of the Republican minority could hold any nominee hostage to their own agenda. For nearly a year, Senate Republicans blocked Richard Cordray, President Obama’s pick to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — not based on his qualifications, but because they did not want the bureau to be able to function at all. In July, after Cordray finally was confirmed, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) admitted that he and his party had done so and conceded, “That’s not a reason to deny someone their appointment. We were wrong.” Three months later, Graham announced he would block every single Obama nominee because he was upset over a (false) 60 Minutes story about Benghazi.

Now that the duly elected Senate majority can confirm nominees without McConnell and Graham’s permission, here are some other areas where the twice-elected President of the United States can now make his mark:

1. Affordable housing. The little known agency, FHFA regulates housing finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and wields significant power to shape both our housing market and the larger economy. Even though he opposed efforts to reduce the mortgage principal owed by troubled homeowners, in direct opposition to the Department of the Treasury’s wishes, since 2009 the agency has been run by Acting Administrator Edward DeMarco. Senate Republicans have blocked President Obama’s attempt to appoint someone to the position who would carry out his administration’s agenda, blocking his first pick in 2011 and then filibustering the nomination of Rep. Mel Watt (D-NC). Now, thanks to this rule change, the 56 senators who backed Watt in an October vote will be sufficient to confirm him. For American families, letting the nation’s chief executive implement his agenda at this important executive agency can mean more affordable rental housing, equal access to sustainable and affordable mortgages, and fair mortgage rates.


2. Voting and civil rights. Last Friday, President Obama nominated Debo Adegbile, a widely accomplished civil rights lawyer, to head the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. While voices on the far right have already gone on the attack against him as “racist” and “anti-white,” his road to confirmation will undoubtedly be a lot smoother with only a majority of senators needed to confirm him. In this position, Adegbile will be well positioned to enforce what’s left of the Voting Rights Act and lead efforts to protect all Americans against discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, disability, religion, familial status, and national origin.

3. Campaign finance law. Perhaps no agency in Washington is as broken as the Federal Election Commission. The six-person commission is, by design, deadlocked with a maximum of three Democrats and three Republicans. Though all six Commissioners are appointed by the president, the opposite party’s Senate leader has traditionally gotten to pick half of the Commission and the nominees have been voted on in pairs to get the needed super-majority support. McConnell, a staunch opposition of campaign finance limits and disclosure, and the Senate Republicans have picked candidates who deadlock on virtually all major issues and block even the most basic enforcement of campaign law. Currently, four of the six Commissioners are serving expired terms, staying on until the confirmations of their successors. Without a McConnell veto, however, President Obama could appoint any Republican (or even independents) to the Commission and could create a working majority to fix the FEC (a strategy used successfully by fictional President Josiah Bartlet on The West Wing). Mary Boyle, Common Cause’s vice president for communications, told ThinkProgress that it is time for the President and the Senate majority to fill these seats. “The FEC and other agencies need to be filled. The nominees should get robust debate and a vote, but should not be held hostage by the minority,” she observed.

4. Corporate responsibility and transparency. Other powerful commissions, including the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Communications Commission, allow for a majority of members of the President’s party and a minority of others. In the past these picks have also been generally left up to the other party in the Senate — and Senate Republicans have obstructed even the Democratic nominees in an attempt to prevent them from carrying out the President’s agenda. As the FCC and SEC consider everything from corporate political transparency to rules for corporate mergers, this may make it easier for President Obama to ensure that both Democratic and Republcians in those positions and others have the interest of the American people at heart.

5. Science. Key posts including the heads of the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the US Geological Survey have all been vacant for months. With several Senate Republicans perusing a war on science, even cabinet-level nominees like EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz faced lengthy delays before their confirmations. Now, with their veto taken away, President Obama and the Senate majority can fill these important slots.

6. National security. A number of agencies including the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security have a large number of vacant leadership positions. Even Jeh Johnson, Obama’s nominee for DHS Secretary, had been held up by Graham and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) despite bipartisan support. With their obstruction powers curtailed, the administration should be able to fill these vital positions so a full team can focus on keeping the nation safe.