Senate Republicans are looking for a fight with the president.
This much was clear when they used the power of the filibuster to block the nomination of Rep. Melvin Watt (D-North Carolina) to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), which oversees mortgage giants Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.
The blocking of Rep. Watt is significant because it speaks volumes about Republican opposition to President Obama. This just does not happen to sitting members of Congress. Although the FHFA is not a cabinet-level position, no lawmaker has been blocked for nomination to a cabinet post since 1843—that’s 170 years ago.
In 1843, the enslavement of black people was still the law of the land, and Sojourner Truth began her career as an abolitionist. Roger B. Taney—the jurist who wrote the opinion in the Dred Scott decision—was Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. And 1843 witnessed the introduction of the first blackface minstrel show.
A great deal has changed in 170 years, to be sure. Now we have our first African-American president, and Republicans—once the party of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass until they lost their way—have now decided to block a congressman (who happens to be black) as nominee for a federal agency. Coincidence? You decide.
Watt is a 21-year veteran of the House and a long-time member of the Financial Services Committee, with support from the National Association of Realtors and the National Association of Home Builders.
Yet, conservative interest groups opposed him, and Republican detractors such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) claim he lacks “technical expertise,” and does not meet the standards of “someone who will protect against future bailouts.” Translation: black nominees need not apply.
For a party that has a huge black people problem these days, this was not a wise move for the GOP. So much for that seemingly perennial so-called minority outreach we always seem to hear about. Raw, unfiltered and unabated voter suppression moves in the South, combined with the orchestrated Tea Party shutdown of the federal government over Obamacare, have rendered the Republican Party a toxic brand.
And incidents such as the racist rant of a local North Carolina GOP official on The Daily Show, and a racist Facebook post from a Minnesota Republican group comparing abortion to slavery, have only turned the situation from bad to worse. Republicans are their own worst enemy.
And yet, the GOP has made the president their existential enemy and boogeyman, and Obamacare repeal their cause célèbre, to such an extent they would take down the government just to make Obama look bad and destroy his crowning achievement—which they failed to accomplish, in any case. Nevertheless, we see what the Tea Party is capable of doing. After all, they turned Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a Canadian-born Latino, into a white conservative Southerner and anti-immigrant neo-Confederate.
Meanwhile, the other part to this story is the filibuster. The Senate voted 56-42 to stop the blocking of Watt. In most functioning democracies, this simple majority of votes would be a win. But in the dysfunctional world of the U.S. Senate, it was four votes shy of the 60 votes needed to withstand a filibuster on the nomination.
Republican senators have abused the filibuster over time to the extent that the legislative body has turned into an ungovernable, banana-republic-style institution; a laughingstock. When 60 votes are needed to get things done, nothing gets done and government grinds to a halt. And for those who hate government, who want it to fail and who fail to see a positive role for government in our lives, that is precisely the point.
The same day Senate Republicans blocked Watt, they also blocked Patricia Millett, Obama’s pick for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Millett won—or lost—in the Senate with 55 votes in favor versus 38 votes against, five votes shy of the 60 needed to overcome a filibuster.
An exemplary lawyer, Millett has argued before the nation’s highest court 32 times. Her superior qualifications are unquestioned, and yet with other nominations on the horizon, a minority of senators are able to block nominees without debate, just because. If a president is unable to shape the federal courts, and fill the administration with individuals of his or her own liking, then what exactly does a president have left?
This stark reality is prompting Democrats to invoke the “nuclear option” and change the Senate filibuster rules if Republicans continue to block the president’s nominations. There is every indication the madness will not subside, and the Tea Party will continue to go to great lengths, stalling the business of government because they hate government and want this president to fail. This is why the blocking of Mel Watt’s nomination is important.
Things are about to get real in the Senate.
Saturday, 2 November 2013