Editorial: Deal doesn't negate need for filibuster reform

Published: Thursday, Jul. 18, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 10A
Last Modified: Thursday, Jul. 18, 2013 - 6:44 am

The new watchdog Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, established with the Wall Street Reform Act of 2010, finally has a director who can hold financial institutions accountable.

Richard Cordray, Ohio's former attorney general and former treasurer, was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on Tuesday morning, after senators voted 71 to 29 to end the two-year-long minority Republican filibuster of his nomination.

Cordray, acting director of the agency since January 2012, was confirmed by a vote of 66 to 34.

This 2-year-long obstruction of a clearly qualified nominee is yet another item in a long catalog of abuses of the filibuster, rules that allow a minority of senators to force the majority to assemble 60 votes to cut off debate and move legislation to an up-or-down vote.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., had threatened to change the filibuster rules if minority Republicans did not allow up-or-down votes on seven nominees to President Barack Obama's Cabinet and other executive appointments.

So senators met in the Old Senate Chamber and struck a deal. In addition to Cordray, the Senate will vote on the president's nominations to head the Labor Department, Environmental Protection Agency and Export-Import Bank. By the end of the month, the Senate also will vote on three nominees to the National Labor Relations Board, giving that board a full slate of five Senate-confirmed members for the first time in a decade.

This temporary truce on seven nominations is fine, but it does nothing to end minority obstructionism on judicial appointments and legislation – or future appointments. This deal should be the last of its kind struck in the Senate. It is long past time to change the filibuster rules.

The reality is that the Senate had no filibusters until 1830, and they were used only rarely, on matters of principle. Until 1970, the U.S. Senate averaged fewer than two filibusters a year.

But since 2007, the GOP minority has used the filibuster hundreds of times a year. No longer do senators attempt to put together a majority coalition to carry the day.

The Senate now even allows "silent" filibusters – the mere threat of a filibuster – to force the majority to assemble 60 votes to cut off debate and move legislation to a vote. These "pseudo-filibusters" have turned the filibuster from a rare tool of last resort to a regular feature.

As California Sen. Dianne Feinstein lamented in April after expanded background checks for gun sales failed, despite the support of 55 senators: "Everything needs 60 votes today. This is supposed to be a majority body."

The U.S. Senate needs to establish limits on debate and guarantee up-or-down votes on executive appointments, judicial nominees and legislation.

The next test of the filibuster comes when the president nominates a new head for the Department of Homeland Security if, as expected, Janet Napolitano moves to California to head the University of California system.

If a minority of senators opts to obstruct and delay a qualified nominee, that should mark the end of the filibuster.

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