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November 22, 2017

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Republican obstructionism

Senators use rules, procedures to block nominees and progress in government

As of Memorial Day weekend, 120 of President Barack Obama’s nominees to office have been idling in the Senate. Nearly all are victims of anonymous holds placed by Republican senators.

As NPR reported Thursday, there are crucial vacancies in the Homeland Security, Defense and Justice departments, the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, among others, because of the holds. As well, there are five ambassadors and 29 judges who have yet to be confirmed.

This obstructionism follows the Republicans’ two infamous blanket holds on all of Obama’s nominees placed earlier this year by Sens. Richard Shelby of Alabama and Jim Bunning of Kentucky.

Holds in the Senate are a serious matter. The senator who places a hold is telling the chamber that he will filibuster if the nominee’s name is brought up for approval. Unless released, a hold can kill a nomination, which is a setback for the administration and the country because it leaves a vital position open.

Senate rules do not allow anonymous holds, but that rule has rarely been enforced. All but 10 of the current holds are anonymous, and nine are Republican. Democrats say they don’t have any anonymous holds.

Anonymous holds are cowardly, but they’re not the only tool Republicans have been using to stop progress. The GOP has been bold about using filibusters to block legislation. In this current session of Congress, Republicans have tried 58 filibusters, tying the Democrats’ record. Republicans, however, are shy of their record, which they set during the 2007-08 session with 112 filibusters.

In response to criticism, Republicans have said that Democrats used the same tactics when they were in the minority. But Democrats never went to these extremes. Far from it, for example, current Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada placed a “blanket” hold for a time on President George W. Bush’s nominees, but he allowed judicial nominations and those for the Defense Department and national security positions to move forward. And the length of the holds is growing. NPR reported that as of Memorial Day 2002, a comparable point in Bush’s presidency, there were 13 nominations that had been on hold for more than two days. Among Obama’s nominees, more than 108 have been on hold for more than two days.

Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon are working to reform the use of holds in the Senate. Ironically, when they tried to bring the measure for a vote, Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., objected because, he said, it wasn’t one of the “pressing issues” facing the country.

Grassley, however, said the use of anonymous holds might not have been a big deal in the past but now it is “influencing the productivity of the United States Senate.”

The Republican holds and filibusters are doing more than hindering the Senate’s work. When the president can’t fill jobs, it blocks the administration from governing. That may score points for Republicans with their base, but it harms the country. Republicans should drop these tactics and start working with Democrats for the good of the nation.

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