The vacancy crisis and the need for Senate reform

THE VACANCY CRISIS AND THE NEED FOR SENATE REFORM…. There are still political observers, in the media and out, who seem to think the status quo on filibusters, holds, and judicial nominees is normal. Dems do it under Republican presidents; Republicans do it under Democratic presidents. It’s just how the process goes.

Except those assumptions are tragically wrong. What we’re seeing now just isn’t normal.

As the first congressional session of Obama’s presidency draws to a close, what began as a slow process of confirmation has ballooned into a full-blown judicial crisis. The Senate has overseen the slowest pace of judicial staffing in at least a generation, with a paltry 39.8 percent of Obama’s judges having been confirmed, according to numbers compiled by Senate Democrats. Of the 103 district and circuit court nominees, only 41 have been confirmed.

By this time in George W. Bush’s presidency, the Senate had confirmed 76 percent of his nominees. President Clinton was working at a rate of 89 percent at this point in his tenure. […]

Ronald Reagan had twice as many judges confirmed by this time in his presidency, with his 87 confirmations dwarfing Obama’s total. George H.W. Bush had moved 70 judges through the Democratic-controlled Senate.

With fewer judges on staff, those left must take on that many more cases. For example, each judge on a Denver panel two robes short is responsible for 593 instead of 430 cases. The slow pace of confirmations has led to a federal judiciary with nearly one in eight seats empty, as a foreclosure crisis fueled by rampant fraud floods the courts.

For Senate Republicans, none of this matters. The key is to prevent a Democratic president from putting qualified jurists on the federal bench, and make it easier for the judiciary’s shift to the right to continue unabated. As a result, qualified judicial nominees who enjoy broad bipartisan support get stuck by secret holds and pointless filibusters, not because they’re undeserving, but because GOP senators would rather have a vacancy crisis than judges nominated by Obama.

As even conservative judges have insisted, these tactics are undermining the way the American system of justice functions — or in this case, doesn’t. That makes Republican petty and hyper-partisan tactics more than just a nuisance; this is arguably quite dangerous.

With that in mind, now is also a good time to mention that there’s a growing push for the Senate to reform the way the institution operates, and a new initiative was launched this week called Fix the Senate Now. Among the groups involved are SEIU, the AFL-CIO, and other leading labor organizations, as well as the Sierra Club, Daily Kos, and Common Cause.

In the meantime, on the Hill, Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.) are taking the lead on reforming the way the Senate does business. I’ll have more on their efforts later in the week.

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.