How Obstruction Works

From time to time, I find it necessary to write a new iteration of an old article about Senate procedure in order to explain why the Senate either cannot (or finds it very difficult to) do certain things. Ian Millhiser has written a very fine piece in this genre for Think Progress in an effort to explain why the Democrats have only been able to confirm one judge so far this year, despite the rules changes they made last fall. One of the reasons that Millhiser’s effort is so valuable is because he goes beyond the tangible obstacles (unanimous consent, cloture rules, time delays) to describe some of the practical and psychological reasons that Harry Reid feels hamstrung.

If Reid were determined to confirm judges at the expense of all other priorities, this byzantine procedure would not be enough to stop him. But he would do so at the expense of his colleagues’ ability to perform many of the basic functions of their jobs.

Most senators actually spend very little time on the Senate floor, where confirmation votes and similar business takes place. The rest of their time is spent speaking with colleagues and sitting on committees. It’s spent meeting with constituents and being briefed on policy by staffers. It’s spent in caucus meetings and in closed-door meetings with their allies. And, because senators are elected officials, much of it is also spent fundraising or talking to their campaign staff.

Each of these tasks is essential to a senator’s job. A lawmaker who is poorly informed will represent their constituents poorly. A lawmaker who neglects important relationships will find themselves impotent. A lawmaker who ignores their constituents or who pays too little attention to their reelection campaign probably won’t remain a senator much longer.
For these reasons, every floor vote is a disruptive event. When Reid calls a vote on a bill, or a nomination, or even a motion reconsider whether to proceed to debate, he is telling 99 of the most over-scheduled people in Washington that they need to drop what they are doing and present themselves on the Senate floor. It would be as if your boss ordered everyone in your office to drop what they are doing and report to a central conference room at barely predictable intervals, and then to try to schedule the rest of their days around these disruptions.

A majority leader who doesn’t manage this process in a way that allows his or her colleagues to attend to the rest of their job responsibilities probably won’t remain majority leader much longer.

As Millhiser points out, overcoming Republican obstruction on judicial nominees is possible, but it entails massive inconvenience for individual senators, including all the Democrats in Harry Reid’s caucus. While Democrats are committed to filling empty slots in the federal judiciary, there is a limit to how much pain senators will tolerate in order to get it done. They do, after all, have some other priorities, too.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.