Courts Reject Lawsuit Challenging U.S. Senate’s Filibuster Rule

Today is Election Day in the U.S. Most public opinion polls and political commentators say that the Republican Party is likely to emerge from the election with at least a simple majority in the U.S. Senate, i.e., more than 50 Senate seats. As a Democrat I lament this likely result and probably should be glad that the Senate’s filibuster rule will provide the Democrats in the Senate with a means to block at least some of the Republican-backed measures in the next Session of Congress. But I am not pleased with the possible use of the filibuster by the Senate Democrats. I have believed, and still believe, that the filibuster rule is an abomination and should be eliminated, as has been discussed in many prior posts.

Such elimination, however, will not come from the courts.

As discussed in a prior post, on May 14, 2012, Common Cause, a non-profit organization, joined by four members of the U.S. House of Representatives and three private citizens commenced a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of U.S. Senate Rule XXII that requires at least 60 votes to stop debate and proceed to a vote on the merits of a bill or other proposal. In other words, the rule that permits filibusters.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Colombia on December 21, 2012, dismissed the complaint in the case. (Common Cause v. Biden, 909 F. Supp. 2d 9 (D.D.C. 2012).) The court held that none of the plaintiffs had standing to bring the case and that the case presented a non-justiciable political question. This decision also was covered in a prior post.

On April 15, 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Colombia Circuit unanimously affirmed the dismissal of the complaint, but on different grounds.

According to the Court of Appeals, the plaintiffs failed to sue the proper defendant: the U.S. Senate or a U.S. Senator. The reason this was not done is apparent. The U.S. “Constitution’s Speech or Debate Clause provides that ‘for any Speech or Debate in either House,’ Senators and Representatives ‘shall not be questioned in any other Place.’ U.S. CONST. art I, § 6. The Clause confers immunity for any act that falls ‘within the sphere of legitimate legislative activity.’ Eastland v. U.S. Servicemen’s Fund, 421 U.S. 491, 503 (1975); see also Kilbourn v. Thompson, 103 U.S. 168, 204 (1880) (the Clause covers all ‘things generally done in a session of the House [or Senate] by one of its members in relation to the business before it’). And it protects not only elected legislators but their aides, to whom legislative work is delegated. See Gravel v. United States, 408 U.S. 606, 616-18 (1972). That is, the Clause covers aides when their conduct ‘would be a protected legislative act if performed by the Member himself.’ Id. at 618.”

As a result, the Court of Appeals held it had no jurisdiction to decide the case on the merits.

On November 3, 2014, the case ended with the U.S. Supreme Court’s denial of the plaintiffs’ petition for a writ of certiorari, i.e., refusal to hear the case on the merits. (Common Cause v. Biden, No. 14-253 (U.S. Sup. Ct. Nov. 3, 2014).)

Common Cause immediately issued a statement criticizing the Supreme Court’s action. Its President, Miles Rapoport said, “The Supreme Court’s refusal to hear Common Cause’s case challenging the constitutionality of the U.S. Senate’s filibuster rule is both shortsighted and ominous. Instead of protecting debate, the 60-vote filibuster rule has shut down discussion on important legislation, from a living wage to addressing climate change.” Rapoport added, “the extreme use of the filibuster has led to partisan gridlock and dysfunction that ultimately robs the American people of a Senate that should be responsive to the needs of our country.” Moreover, “the Supreme Court let stand a DC Circuit Court of Appeals decision that makes it logically impossible to challenge Senate rules that violate the Constitution.”

Although I share Common Cause’s disappointment in the failure to have the filibuster rule eliminated, I am not surprised by the courts’ refusal to treat the issue on the merits. Indeed, courts in our constitutional system should not be deciding issues like this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I don’t want to belong to any club [like the U.S. Senate] that will accept me as a member”

Groucho Marx
Groucho Marx
U.S. Senate Chamber
U.S. Senate Chamber

Little did the famous comedian Groucho Marx realize that he was talking about today’s dysfunctional U.S. Senate when many years ago he sent a telegram to a club stating, “PLEASE ACCEPT MY RESIGNATION. I DON’T WANT TO BELONG TO ANY CLUB THAT WILL ACCEPT ME AS A MEMBER.”[1]

Frustration over the current ways of the Senate is often listed as a major reason why many long-time, respected members of the Senate recently have resigned or announced they are not running for re-election in 2014. In addition, both major political parties are having difficulty recruiting qualified candidates to run for the Senate in that election for the same reason.

Recently the popular former Montana Governor, Brian Schweitzer, who is the Democratic Party’s best hope of retaining the Senate seat now held by Democrat Max Bachus, announced that he was not running for the Senate next year. A major reason for this decision, he said, was Washington’s being a “dysfunctional . . . sinkhole” where “most of the people . . . are frauds.”

One of the major reasons for these negative views, which I share, is the Senate’s rules permitting filibusters of pending legislation and judicial and executive nominations. They are, in my opinion, an abomination and unconstitutional as has been discussed in prior posts.

Yet again these rules have been in the recent news because of threatened Republican filibusters of certain presidential nominations and of the July 16th compromise that allows those rules to remain in place in exchange for the Republicans not filibustering seven pending executive nominations.

I am pleased that these pending nominations will receive an up-or-down vote by the Senate. On the other hand, I am disappointed that so much time and attention is spent on this ridiculous side show and that the filibuster rules are still in place.

I am not alone in despairing the current dysfunctionality of the Senate and more generally the federal government. In the most recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News public opinion poll, only 17% had confidence in our national government while only 10% had confidence in the U.S. Congress according to the latest Gallup poll.

Reversing this horrible public distrust of the federal government is important to Gerald F. Seib, the Washington Bureau Chief of the Wall Street Journal. He suggests the following as important means to that end:

  1. Fix the federal governmental system. The “rules of the Senate need to be changed to curtail the ability of a minority of Senators, or sometimes a single one, to make progress grind to a halt.” In addition, “States need to stop drawing congressional districts that ensure deep and paralyzing polarization by making so dark red or dark blue that only the most ideologically rigid candidates bother to run.”
  2. Modernize the federal government so it is more useful in our everyday lives. For this proposition, Seib praised a recent speech by President Obama which said he had “directed the Cabinet to develop an aggressive management agenda . . .  that delivers a smarter, more innovative, and more accountable government for its citizens.” The President also noted that last year he had “asked Congress for the authority to reorganize and consolidate the federal bureaucracy” and that his Administration had found more efficient “ways to deliver the services that citizens expect in smarter, faster, and better ways.”
  3. Manage the deficit. Although Seib says eliminating the deficit any time soon would be bad for the economy and should not be done, the public needs to sense that the problem is “being tamed intelligently.”

I merely say, “Amen, Brother.”


[1] A prior post chuckled over the humorous correspondence between Groucho and Joseph Welch, the attorney for the U.S. Army in the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings in the U.S. Senate.

 

 

 

 

 

Evaluations of President Obama

Maureen Dowd of the New York Times on April 21st criticized President Barack Obama. She said “he still has not learned how to govern” and “doesn’t know how to work the system.” The next day a similar critique was made in the Times by two “reporters”–Michael Shear and Peter Baker–that used the bullying President Lyndon Johnson as a model of what a president should do in these circumstances.

I disagree with these criticisms, and my letter to that effect was published in the Times on April 24th. I said,

  • “Maureen Dowd asserts that President Obama ‘still has not learned how to govern.’ I disagree.
  • Last week the Senate, by a good majority, voted in favor of expanded background checks and making straw purchases and gun trafficking a federal crime. Those votes were attributable, in part, to strong advocacy by Mr. Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
  • The true outrage lies in two places.
  • First is the Senate’s filibuster rule, which is being used by the Republicans to require a supermajority vote of 60.
  • Second is the Republican senators’ determination to prevent Mr. Obama from accomplishing anything. Remember Mitch McConnell’s statement in the last Congress that his top priority was to stop Mr. Obama’s re-election.”

This letter was a synopsis of my post, The Outrageous, Dysfunctional U.S. Senate, and my previous blog posts criticizing the Senate’s filibuster rule and the Republican Senators’ obstructionism.

Two columnists for the Washington Post–Greg Sargent and Jonathan Bernstein–also have taken vigorous exception to the opinions of Maureen Dowd and Messrs. Shear and Baker.

Sargent sees this recent criticism of Obama as focusing on his alleged failure “to put enough pressure on red-state Democratic Senators like Mark Begich.” However, says Sargent, even if all four of the red-state Democrats [who voted against the measure instead] had voted for the measure, it still would not have passed because of the 60-vote requirement of the Senate’s filibuster rule. Moreover, if these four Democrats “were basing their vote in the calculation that they need to achieve distance from the president and signal cultural affinity with their red state constituents, as many have speculated, any open pressure [by Obama] would only make the vote harder for them.”

The plain conclusion for Sargent was “the Republican Party — and the 60 vote Senate — are the prime culprits in the killing of [the bi-partisan background-check bill].”

Bernstein has had enough of others comparing Obama to President Lyndon Johnson. Bernstein pointed out the following reasons why such a comparison is inappropriate:

  1. The situation for Johnson was very different. He had huge majorities in both chambers of Congress, and in the aftermath of a presidential assassination, there was a strong national desire for unity and action.
  2. In the mid-1960s, political parties were much weaker and not as polarized as today.
  3. Although Johnson faced filibusters on key civil rights legislation, he did not face filibusters on every single thing he proposed. Nor did he have to fight a dedicated partisan opposition over every judicial and executive branch nomination.
  4. Obama, on the other hand, to get anything through the Senate needs the votes of Republicans, every one of whom has strong partisan incentives to oppose him. Johnson really never faced anything like that.
  5. “Generally, the political science literature on presidential persuasion emphasizes how little presidents are able to accomplish when it comes to swaying votes in Congress.
  6. “Johnson wasn’t just any president; he was a president who had been a very effective Senate Majority Leader. He came to the White House with years of relationships with many senators; to the extent he was successful, it’s probably not something that’s easy for anyone else to duplicate.”
  7. “Johnson’s bullying style was successful … for a while. By the end of his presidency, it wasn’t working any more. Getting a reputation as an effective negotiator has a lot of advantages, but getting a reputation as a bully who can’t be trusted creates a lot of problems — even if bullying can be effective in the short run.”

I, therefore, continue to be a strong supporter of our President and a severe critic of the dysfunctional U.S. Senate (and the House of Representatives too).

 

The Outrageous, Dysfunctional U.S. Senate

Today (April 17th) the U.S. Senate again demonstrated its dysfunctionality in outrageously refusing to vote on the merits on adopting reasonable, common-sense legislation to combat the horrendous toll of gun violence in the U.S. Just look at the New York Times and Washington Post articles on this day in the Senate.

Under the unconstitutional Senate filibuster rule that requires 60 votes to end debate and proceed to voting on the merits, the compromise measure crafted by Democratic Senator Joe Machin and Republican Senator Pat Toomey to require background checks for sales of guns online and at gun shows (but not between neighbors and family members) failed to get the 60 votes although it had the support of 54% of the Senate.

Similarly a measure to increase enforcement and reporting on gun purchases by mentally ill persons had majority support (52%), but not the “necessary” 60 votes and thus failed to advance.

Another failure despite majority support (58%) was a measure to make straw purchasing and trafficking of guns a federal crime.

One gun control measure–renewal and strengthening of a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines–also failed to even get a simple majority, 40-60.

For me these actions once again show the outrageousness of the filibuster rule and the failure of the Senate earlier this year to abolish or make significant changes to that rule. I have frequently railed against the filibuster rule and practice in this blog.

As President Obama said afterwards, it was a “shameful day for Washington.”

 

 

Judging on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the second most important court in the U.S., is once again back in the news.

"Sri" Srinivasan
“Sri” Srinivasan

The immediate issue is the need for the U.S. Senate to confirm President Obama’s appointment of Srikanth “Sri” Srinivasan to one of the four vacancies on this Court.[1]

Srinivasan has a blue-chip resume. Currently he is the Principal Deputy Solicitor General of the U.S. and has argued 20 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. He previously clerked for the Reagan-appointed Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. He also served with distinction in the Justice Department for both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and with the Washington, D.C. office of the eminent law firm of O’Melveny & Myers. A native of India, Srinivasan grew up in Kansas and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1989 from Stanford University and a J.D./M.B.A. degree in 1995 from its Law School and Graduate School of Business.

On April 10th Srinivasan had an uneventful 90-minute hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee. His nomination is strongly supported by the Obama Administration and by noted conservative and liberal lawyers and academics.

The next step is for the Committee to vote on whether to send this nomination to the Senate floor for a vote. At least one of the eight Republican members of the Committee, Orrin Hatch, said he was impressed and would support such a motion. Assuming all 10 Democratic Committee members support such a motion, then it should be approved by a vote of at least 11 to 7. Then the whole Senate would vote on the nomination unless there was a filibuster of same.[2]

Perhaps the partisan wrangling over appointments to this Court is overwrought.

Senior Judge David B. Sentelle
Senior Judge David B. Sentelle

Evidence for a less partisan view of this Court is found in its April 5th Presentation Ceremony of the Portrait of D.C. Circuit Senior Judge David B. Sentelle, who was appointed to the Court in 1987 by Republican President Ronald Reagan. For remarks of appreciation from his own Court, Judge Sentelle chose Circuit Judge David S. Tatel, who was appointed by Democratic President Bill Clinton in 1994.[3]

Judge David S. Tatel
Judge David S. Tatel

Judge Tatel commented on the apparent oddity of his speaking for Judge Sentelle.  Tatel said, “those who believe that judges’ decisions are driven by ideology may wonder why Dave [Sentelle] asked me to speak. After all, you would be hard pressed to find two judges with more different backgrounds, different worldviews, different beliefs, and, indeed, different shoes than we two Davids. But those who focus on these differences do not understand what it means to be a federal judge, do not understand this Court’s long tradition of collegiality, and surely do not understand Dave Sentelle.”  Tatel continued, “when Judge Sentelle and I sit together, we very rarely disagree.” In “the nineteen years we’ve served together, we have disagreed less than 3% of the time.”

The answer to why there had been so little disagreement, according to Judge Tatel, was “Judge Sentelle’s decisions are driven not by personal preferences, but by a conscientious application of the principles and texts that bind us. Uncommonly peppered with the hallmarks of restrained decision-making, his opinions are full of phrases like, ‘If the intent of Congress is clear, that is the end of the matter’; ‘Courts must accord substantial deference to Congress’s findings’; ‘We are bound by the decisions of the Supreme Court’; ‘One three judge panel has no authority to overrule another’; ‘We owe agency fact-finding great deference’; ‘Issues not raised on appeal are deemed waived’; and ‘Absent jurisdiction we are powerless to act.’ For Judge Sentelle, “the tenets of judicial restraint are not mere slogans to be invoked when convenient; they are the building blocks of all that we do here.”

Judge Tatel also complimented Judge Sentelle’s judicial opinions. According to Tatel, Judge Sentelle “crafts opinions that treat every one of his colleagues, as well as every citizen who appears before us, with respect and a true generosity of spirit. Flipping through his opinions, including his dissents, you’ll find no sarcasm, no belittling remarks, no callous dismissals. This is, after all, a United States Court, and Judge Sentelle’s opinions are a credit to the dignity of this institution. In his five years as our Chief Judge, Dave has protected our proudly nurtured tradition of collegiality.”

In conclusion, Judge Tatel said, Judge Sentelle is “a man who has the greatest respect for the office he holds and an abiding dedication to a life of service and the rule of law.”


[1] President Obama’s only other eminently qualified nominee to the court, Caitlin J. Halligan, was named in 2010 to fill the vacancy created by the elevation of John G. Roberts Jr. to the Supreme Court. In March of this year Republicans for a second time mounted a filibuster that prevented the Senate from voting on Ms. Halligan, and President Obama granted her request to withdraw her nomination saying, “This unjustified filibuster obstructed the majority of Senators from expressing their support. I am confident that with Caitlin’s impressive qualifications and reputation, she would have served with distinction.” Her nomination was supported by the New York Times and Washington Post .

[2] If the Srinivasan nomination is filibustered , then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has threatened to modify the Senate Rules to bar such filibusters on at least judicial nominees. I frequently have voiced my strong disapproval of the filibuster rule and practice.

[3] Judge Tatel is a University of Chicago Law School classmate and friend of mine, and I have written a post about his opinion for the D.C. Circuit in the Voting Rights Act case now pending in the U.S. Supreme Court.

GOP Senators Continue To Flirt with Filibusters

This past January U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid refused to press for adoption on a simple majority vote (at least 51 of the 100 Senators) of significant, but still flawed, reforms of the body’s filibuster rule. Instead Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed to much weaker changes to the rule. Past posts have expressed my dissatisfaction with this rule and the recent change.

As a result, the Senate and the U.S. are still facing threatened filibusters by Senate Republicans over confirmation of presidential nominations.

Chuck Hagel
Chuck Hagel

The most recent example is the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense.

Yes, on February 26th the U.S. Senate did vote, 71 to 27, to invoke cloture and end debate on voting on confirmation of this nomination. The 71 votes came from 53 Democratic, 2 Independent and 18 Republican Senators, including Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, who continued to be severe critics of Hagel. (Two Democratic Senators did not vote: Mark Udall and Frank Lautenberg.)

Later that same day the Senate voted, 58 to 41, to confirm Hagel for this position. For this vote, only four Republican Senators were in the majority: Senators Thad Cochran, Mike Johanns, Richard Shelby and Rand Paul. (Senator Lautenberg did not vote.)

While I am pleased that there was no prolonged filibuster of this nomination and that the  Senate did vote on confirmation, getting there, in my opinion, was needlessly prolonged and again demonstrated the dysfunctionality of the Senate. Here are some of the reasons for that opinion:

  • In early February Democratic Senator Carl Levin, the Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, delayed a committee vote on the nomination in an attempt to garner support for same from some of the Republican committee members.
  • On February 14th, the Senate failed by one vote to invoke cloture, 59 to 40 (Majority Leader Harry Reid later switched his “Yes” vote to “No” so he could later move to reconsider cloture).
  • Republican Senators Lindsay Graham and James Inhofe had put “holds”on the nomination and thereby prevented a vote on confirmation; Graham wanted more information from the Administration about the Benghazi attack (in which Hagel had no involvement) while Inhofe fomented that Hagel was anti-Israel.
  • Chris Cillizza, a Washington Post columnist, reported that Republicans were voting against cloture because there were no political risks from doing so; they said they had legitimate doubts about Hagel’s ability to lead the Pentagon; and resistance was a Republican rallying cry.
  • Another Washington Post columnist, Jonathan Bernstein, stated that Republican Senators are insisting on a 60 vote requirement for virtually everything because many of them see no difference on cloture and substantive voting and do not require extraordinary reasons to vote against cloture.
  • Senator McCain said that one of the reasons for Republican opposition to Hagel, their former Republican Senate colleague, was his very vocal criticism of President George W. Bush over the Iraq war.
  • Some Republican Senators were opposed to Hagel for allegedly receiving money from a group called “Friends of Hamas” — a rumor that started with a joke about a nonexistent group.
  • On February 15th 15 Republican Senators wrote a joint letter to President Obama asking him to withdraw the Hagel nomination.
John Brennan
John Brennan

This dysunctionality is not over with the confirmation of Hagel. Senator McCain has threatened a similar GOP strategy with respect to confirmation of John Brennan as Director of the CIA.

Jacob J. Lew
Jacob J. Lew

On the other hand, the Senate on February 27th confirmed, 71 (including 20 Republicans) to 26, the nomination of Jacob J. Lew for Secretary of the Treasury.

And on February 25, 2013, the Senate confirmed, 93-0, Robert Bacharach to be a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. He, however,  had been appointed to that position in January 2012, and in the last Congress, in July 2012, clouture was defeated, 56-34.

All of this silliness over Chuck Hagel and potentially over John Brennan would have been prevented if the Senate this past January had adopted more significant reform of its rules regarding filibuster.

 

Additional Reactions to U.S. Senate’s Adoption of Modest Reforms to Its Filibuster Rule

As already reported in a prior post, the U.S. Senate on January 24th adopted modest reforms to its filibuster rule, and the initial reactions were mixed. Here are some additional reactions.

The Majority and Minority Leaders

The brokers of the actual reforms–Democratic Senator Harry Reid, the Majority Leader, and Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, the Minority Leader–issued statements afterwards.

Senator Harry Reid
Senator Harry Reid

Senator Reid said the reforms are “steps towards ending gridlock in the Senate, and making this body a more efficient place while still respecting the rights of the minority.  Americans of all political stripes can agree that Washington is not working the way it should. We were elected to get things done for the middle class – not waste time with endless stalling tactics that cause even bills with broad bipartisan support to languish for weeks. These reforms will allow us to deal with legislation in a more timely fashion, and weaken the ability of those who seek to obstruct for obstruction’s sake”
Reid added, “If these reforms do not do enough to end the gridlock here in Washington, we will consider doing more in the future.”

Senator Mitch McConnell
Senator Mitch McConnell

McConnell, on the other hand, emphasized that the bipartisan compromise package ” avoided the nuclear option, and . . . [retained the rule] that any changes to the Standing Rules of the Senate still require 67 [two-thirds] votes.” He also expressed home “the Senate can return to the way it used to operate and that all of us will be able to participate more fully in the legislative process.”

Leaders for Stronger Reforms

Senator Jeff Merkley
Senator Jeff Merkley

Senator Jeff Merkley, one of the leaders for stronger reforms, recognized that the Senate as a whole had declared “the paralysis of the Senate is unacceptable.”   The adopted reforms, he said, “are modest, and don’t address the core problem of the secret, silent filibuster, but they do include some important elements, providing flexibility on the motion to proceed and speeding up the confirmation process on nominations.”

“If these modest steps do not end the paralysis the Senate currently suffers,” Merkley added,” many Senators are determined to revisit this debate and explore stronger remedies,” and he would keep working to that end. “We have a responsibility to address the big issues facing our country. I’ll keep working with my colleagues to achieve that goal.”

In an interview, Merkley reiterated his commitment to pressing for additional reform if nothing much changes in this session of the Congress.

Senator Tom Udall
Senator Tom Udall

The other leader for stronger reforms was Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico. He said that although the adopted reforms were “not as strong what many of us have been advocating,” they did alter “the way we deal with nominations, conference committees and motions to proceed — all things I’ve been working toward.”  Udall, therefore, was “supporting . . . [the] efforts to get a bipartisan agreement today,” but would “continue to fight for the stronger filibuster reforms my colleagues and I believe will make the Senate a more accountable institution.”

Udall also emphasized that the external infrastructure for Senate reform would continue and remain vigilant and ready to  push for more action later if necessary.

Conclusion

I hope that these limited changes will make the Senate more functional.

But I am skeptical.

For example, in this new session of Congress Republicans are delaying a Judiciary Committee hearing on the President’s nomination of a very able lawyer to be a circuit court judge. The purported justification is their demand for information about the Government’s settlement of a case in which he had a minor role.

Another example is the limited changes’ failure to alter the filibuster rule for high-level presidential appointments. This week an appellate court held that President Obama violated the Constitution by making several recess  appointments to the National Labor Board, which otherwise were subject to Senate confirmation, when the Senate was not really open for business, but rather in Potemkin Village illusions of sessions. According to the New York Times, this Republican senatorial practice and the court’s decision demonstrate how the Democrats’ “timidity” on reforming the filibuster rule “is being used against them.”