When Chuck Hagel’s confirmation vote for defense secretary was filibustered on Feb. 14, we wanted to believe it was a surprise. Yet, the stubbornness of congressional Republicans during the 112th Congress makes us wonder what else we could have expected.
Since 2007, when Republicans lost control of both chambers of Congress, Democrats have had to file a record-setting 392 motions to invoke cloture, a 60-vote measure aimed at preventing or combating filibusters. While this number may under- or overestimate the exact number of filibusters in the Senate, the Republican conversion of the upper chamber into a supermajority-only institution is undeniable.
Such behavior is somewhat understandable on policy battles — albeit highly disruptive and unproductive. When it comes to staffing top government positions, however, it is “unconscionable,” as President Barack Obama characterized the filibuster of Hagel’s confirmation.
Something is wrong when a president cannot confirm his executive branch team with a simple majority in the Senate. Gridlock of this sort serves only to demean the authority of the president.
The nature of the Hagel nomination and the inevitability of his confirmation make it clear that top Senate Republicans aim only to embarrass the president.
In nominating former-GOP Sen. Hagel as secretary of defense, Obama sought to extend at least a token sign of bipartisanship. While Hagel was not the most conservative senator by any means, he supported such anti-Democratic Party policies as the PATRIOT Act and the Iraq Resolution, authorizing the use of military force in Iraq following the Sept. 11 attacks.
By filibustering the nomination of a former colleague, Republicans have taken one of the first meaningful signs of bipartisanship in Obama’s second term and rudely thrown it back at the president.
Moreover, Sen. John McCain even admitted on NBC News’ “Meet the Press” that Hagel will be confirmed once the vote returns to the Senate. This maneuver is simply a dilatory measure for Republicans — an annoying victory, if you will.
But this discussion goes beyond Hagel's confirmation. What is important is not whether Sen. Hagel will be confirmed as the next defense secretary — that is all but guaranteed. What matters is the future of our democracy.
One of the core principles of democracy is majority rule. The protection of minority rights is also important, but not at the expense of governmental efficiency. The filibuster destroys that efficiency.
So what do we do?
Real filibuster reform is the first step. If an elimination of the filibuster altogether is impossible, then why not start with an elimination of the filibuster for Senate confirmations? Baby steps are a powerful legislative tool by which to achieve policy objectives.
As a pragmatist, I have come to terms with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s filibuster reform deal with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. He achieved a set of minor changes to the filibuster rules, but I am confident this will pave the way for more meaningful reform in the future.
There are those who oppose the filibuster eradication because Democrats will one day be in the minority, wishing they had them at their disposal. To them, I respond that the preservation of fundamental democratic ideals is more important than temporary political gains. If not, then our American experiment has been for naught.