The End of the World Again

The parents never got it, but somewhere in the early seventies, career norms changed. No young man would ever again, like his father, spend his life doing one thing, at one place, rising through the ranks, and then retiring with that gold watch – which was always a fiction anyway. It was a plaque and maybe a fruit basket, and that kind of stability, or soul-crushing sameness, was over. Very few of us who launched our careers as that decade started ended up doing what we thought we’d be doing, which allows for a lot of fond memories, without the existential despair about what might have been had one been a tad more adventurous. The whole business played havoc with the notion of identity of course. You knew you were a high-school English teacher, back east, with all that goes along with that – the tweed coat and the pipe – and then you weren’t. A decade later you were writing computer code at a giant aerospace complex in Los Angeles, and then you were in management, and then in senior management, and then not in aerospace at all – it was the locomotive factory and then the hospital chain and then the HMO, and then it was over.

So, what were you? Somewhere along the way, as career norms changed, or disappeared, people simply stopped defining themselves by their work at the moment. Now, when people ask what you do, they’re probably not asking about your job. Tell them you surf, or collect vintage recordings of obscure Italian tenors. Tito Schipa is mighty fine.

Norms change, people are always moving on now, but that also inevitably generates nostalgia. Anyone who has ever been a teacher, perhaps long ago, has fond but not terribly accurate memories of bright minds waking up. That was cool, when it happened, but there was the soul-crushing sameness too. Day after day it was dealing with adolescent angst, where everything is always the end of the world – the essay where you gave them that bad grade, because it really was drivel, that would mean they wouldn’t get into the right college, and thus they wouldn’t find their true love either, and they’d end up selling life insurance in Altoona for the rest of their life, or homeless. No, that one bad grade wasn’t the end of the world, nor was not having a date for the prom yet, or that new big pimple on their nose. Not everything is the end of the world. Only the end of the world is the end of the world – but no amount of reasoned perspective or humor, or theology regarding apocalyptic theory, would convince them of that. It was tiresome.

Not everything is the end of the world – one career ends and another begins – and norms change. The way things have always been is not how things will always be, sometimes for good reason and sometimes not. It doesn’t matter. Defending the way things have always been, which is the whole point of all political conservatism, is a losing proposition. What works will persist, all on its own with no help from any politician, and what doesn’t work will be gone, whether they like it or not – and when it goes that’s not the end of the world, even if no amount of reasoned perspective or humor will ever convince them of that. Sometimes you just have to pull the trigger. Sometimes you have to move on.

That just happened, as Harry Reid just pulled the trigger:

The Senate approved the most fundamental alteration of its rules in more than a generation on Thursday, ending the minority party’s ability to filibuster most presidential nominees in response to the partisan gridlock that has plagued Congress for much of the Obama administration.

Furious Republicans accused Democrats of a power grab, warning them that they would deeply regret their action if they lost control of the Senate next year and the White House in years to come. Invoking the Founding Fathers and the meaning of the Constitution, Republicans said Democrats were trampling the minority rights the framers intended to protect. But when the vote was called, Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader who was initially reluctant to force the issue, prevailed 52 to 48.

Under the change, the Senate will be able to cut off debate on executive and judicial branch nominees with a simple majority rather than rounding up a supermajority of 60 votes. The new precedent established by the Senate on Thursday does not apply to Supreme Court nominations or legislation itself.

Is that the end of the world, the change in the rules so that executive and judicial branch nominees, but not Supreme Court nominees or any legislation, can now be passed by a simple majority? The minority can no longer stop anything they don’t like, at no political cost at all. Why were they allowed to do that anyway? And they can still stop most everything else. What’s the problem?

The problem is that their free ride is now over, and they’re ticked off, although they framed it all in adolescent apocalyptic terms:

Republicans accused Democrats of irreparably damaging the character of an institution that in many ways still operates as it did in the 19th century, and of disregarding the constitutional prerogative of the Senate as a body of “advice and consent” on presidential nominations.

“You think this is in the best interest of the United States Senate and the American people?” asked the Republican leader, Senator Mitch McConnell, sounding incredulous.

“I say to my friends on the other side of the aisle, you’ll regret this. And you may regret it a lot sooner than you think,” he added.

Yeah, yeah – it’s the end of the world as we know it – except it’s more like the end of their world.

The changes will apply to all 1,183 executive branch nominations that require Senate confirmation – not just cabinet positions but hundreds of high- and midlevel federal agency jobs and government board seats.

After five long years, finally, Obama can put his full team in place and challenge the Republicans’ basic assumption that all government, other than the military, is utterly useless. He may fail – there’s not much time left now – but at least no one will be talking theory any longer. It’s just that change is hard:

Senator Pat Roberts, Republican of Kansas, said Democrats had undercut the minority party’s rights forever. “We have weakened this body permanently, undermined it for the sake of an incompetent administration,” he said. “What a tragedy.”

How does Roberts know this administration is incompetent? This administration has just not been given the chance to begin to do much of anything, but all that Mitch McConnell, the Minority Leader, could say as he left the chamber was this – “I think it’s a time to be sad about what’s been done to the United States Senate.”

Yep, and think of the teenage kid with the big new pimple on his nose. This is not the end of the world, but don’t them them that, and Emma Rosser gathers some other reactions, like this from Senator John Thune:

“Senate Democrats are desperate to talk about anything other than the disastrous train wreck of ObamaCare,” Thune said in a statement provided to Breitbart News by his office. “With millions of Americans facing dropped coverage, sticker shock from premium hikes, and the loss of access to their doctor, it’s not surprising that Democrats would want to change the subject away from all of their broken ObamaCare promises. Unfortunately for Americans, they don’t have the luxury of simply changing the subject.”

Ah, it was all a ruse, to change the subject, but then there was another Republican senator, Jeff Sessions:

“Let’s be frank. Presidents want to fill the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals because they think they can shift the balance there and be able to advance their agenda throughout the judicial process because a lot of key cases are filed there, and lobbyists and outside forces that care about judges want the Presidents to put their kind of people in those positions – maybe even their law partner or their friend or their political buddy on that court,” he explained. “We have no money in this country to fund a judgeship that is not needed,” he added.

Ah, we can’t afford to replace retiring judges, as every penny counts these days, and then there was the National Review pundit, Charles Cooke, wondering how far the Democrats will take this:

“Well, how far do you take that?” Cooke pondered aloud. “You could just ignore the House. You could have a military coup – you could have anything at the end of this.”

Hell, it could be the end of the world as we know it, although Slate’s Emily Bazelon doesn’t quite see it that way:

Take the D.C. Circuit – the federal court of appeals that is second to the Supreme Court in importance – as just one example of the Republicans’ advantage, since it’s the cause of the collision that finally sent the Democrats over the edge. Around 2005, after he won re-election, President George W. Bush succeeded in pushing through a slate of D.C. Circuit judges who included hard-core conservatives such as Thomas Griffith, Brett Kavanaugh, and Janice Rogers Brown. They have done all kinds of work for the right since then. Most recently, Brown came through with a ruling against Obamacare’s requirement that employers provide health insurance that covers contraception. As Bush lined up his nominees to the courts (not to mention federal agencies), the Democrats kept their promise only to filibuster selectively, based on “extraordinary circumstances.”

As a result, Bush was able to build a federal judiciary with an overwhelming majority of Republican-appointed judges. As Charlie Savage wrote in 2008 before Obama became president: “Republican-appointed judges, most of them conservatives, are projected to make up 62 percent of the bench next Inauguration Day, up from 50 percent when Mr. Bush took office. They control 10 of the 13 circuits, while judges appointed by Democrats have a dwindling majority on just one circuit.”

That’s pretty much how the presidential power of appointment is supposed to work. You win the White House, you control the courts, until the next time around, when it’s the other party’s turn to pick judges.

That has always been the norm, so it was actually the Republicans that changed the norm:

They have appointed just one of Obama’s five nominees to the D.C. Circuit – Sri Srinivasan, the single golden compromise. Caitlin Halligan withdrew after more than a year of waiting and filibustering. Last summer, Obama announced three nominees at once – Patricia Millett, Robert Wilkins, and Cornelia Pillard. All hyper-qualified. None radical. One even worked in the Bush as well as the Clinton Solicitor General’s Office and has represented the pro-business behemoth that is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. When Obama made his triple-nomination announcement, I figured that the president would go two for three. Or at least one for three. Right?

Wrong. The Republicans filibustered all three of Obama’s picks. Not because they were extraordinary nominees, but because they were nominees, period. The normal business of filling vacant seats on the D.C. Circuit became, in the heated rhetoric of Republican senators such as Chuck Grassley, nefarious “court packing.” Grassley said there was no need for more judges on that court because the workload was down. Never mind that he’d confirmed the Bush judges who at that point brought the total number of non-senior judges on the court to 11 – exactly three more than there are now.

The real reason for the Republican united front was simple math: The D.C. Circuit now has four judges appointed by Republicans and four judges appointed by Democrats, plus six senior judges, five of whom are Republican appointees. Fifteen of the 19 last picks have been made by GOP presidents. The senior judges hear plenty of cases. The appeals courts issue rulings in panels of three. And so, as Moshe Marvit pointed out in Dissent in May, the number that matters most is this: At that point in 2013, almost 80 percent of the D.C. Circuit panels were majority or exclusively Republican appointees.

They had a sweet deal going on there, and now Harry Reid has queered the deal. He had to, to get things back to normal, of all things, but Bazelon argues that hardly matters now:

The fight for bipartisan normalcy has already been lost. The majority leader merely sounded the death knell. There will be lots of loud lamenting at the wake that follows. Don’t be fooled. If the Republicans were in the Democrats’ position, they’d have done the same thing months ago. Now Millett, Wilkins, and Pillard can take their seats on the bench. And soon the funeral speeches will end, and the next phase of life in the Senate will begin.

Hey, things change. They always do. The next phase of life in the Senate will have new norms. Get over it. It’s just that the Republicans didn’t expect the Democrats to accept the new norms. They said “you’ll be sorry when the shoe is on the other foot” – and the Democrats said so be it. That was a miscalculation. They never saw THAT coming.

That changes everything, as the Washington Post’s Jonathan Bernstein argues here:

This is a major, major, event. It changes how the nation is governed in a significant way. That said, it’s not as if the Senate has been static since the last time filibuster rules were changed (at least in a major way) almost 40 years ago; most reform is incremental, and one could argue that the rules change today returns nominations closer to how things were done in the 1970s than they have been for the last decade, and especially during the Obama era. However, what’s more likely is that we’ll see a Senate that isn’t really like either of those bodies.

Bernstein is not sure what the new Senate will look like, but he has some questions:

Outside of obstruction and retaliation, will going nuclear affect the ability of the parties to work together in areas, such as the budget, where they must make deals?

What of the legislative filibuster? Now that majority-imposed reform has happened, will it spread rapidly to legislation the next time it matters? Or will the incentives for Senators to retain it – keeping their individual influence – preserve it?

How will the new Senate actually work out in practice on nominations? Will Senators still be able to put holds on nominations when it isn’t backed up by the need for a super-majority to move to a final vote? It’s worth noting that the filibuster/cloture procedure was not eliminated (at least if I understand correctly); instead, the number for cloture was dropped to a majority. Therefore, an objection can still slow things down for several days. Of course, now that the precedent has been set, that could be eliminated as well, presumably.

It’s almost as if the Senate has to reinvent itself, but if you want stability and sameness, and fixed tradition, you probably wanted to work for Acme Widgets just after high school and retire from Acme Widgets at sixty-five, as a beloved but quietly anonymous middle manager, and then be handed the plaque and the fruit basket at the luncheon down the street at the Italian restaurant. Things don’t work that way anymore, and it’s pretty simple in this political instance. What works just fine will persist, all on its own with no help from any politician, and what doesn’t work will be gone, whether they like it or not, and what they had going on in the “old Senate” just wasn’t working.

The Atlantic’s Molly Ball explains that:

Why did Reid pull the trigger? He was tired of making deals with McConnell, only to see their spirit violated by yet more obstruction, allies say. The two reached an informal agreement in January that was supposed to lead to fewer filibuster threats – and another deal in July that paved the way for several executive-branch nominations, including Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and Thomas Perez to head the Department of Labor. But none of these bargains affected the overall trend of blockage, and Reid finally had enough.

At Mother Jones, Patrick Caldwell explains that:

The real reason Democrats were so eager to confirm Obama’s DC Circuit nominees, and Republicans were so desperate to block them, is that the court’s current conservative majority has repeatedly blocked the president’s agenda. Since most of the federal bureaucracy resides in DC, the DC Circuit is tasked with assessing the constitutionality of federal rules and regulations. Conservatives on the court have neutered much of Dodd-Frank, the post-recession financial reform bill that was meant to keep banks in check. The court also overturned Obama’s ability to appoint staff while Congress is out of town and struck down state environmental rules that would have regulated emissions from other states.

Laws get passed. They get signed into law by the president, who is supposed to administer them, which is why that’s called the administrative branch of government, but somewhere in there we had inserted a new factor, a small minority, in only the Senate, that could keep any particular law from actually being implemented, one way or another. This removes that factor, and Jonathan Chait explains a few specific details here:

President Obama’s second-term agenda runs not through Congress but through his own administrative agencies. His appointees are writing rules for financial reform, housing policy and – the potentially enormous one – climate emissions. Senate Republicans have tried to stymie this agenda by blocking executive-branch appointments, most recently filibustering the nomination of Mel Watt to run the Federal Housing Finance Agency. The executive-branch filibuster has become a primary Republican weapon against Obama’s agenda.

Jamie Bouie generalizes that point:

John McCain has predicted this will put a “chill” on the “entire” chamber, and Louisiana Sen. David Vitter has said that this is “a shame for the Senate” and “scary and dictatorial” for the country. But there’s nothing undemocratic about changing the rules to allow a majority to prevail, or – in this case – robbing a minority of a tool to obstruct without consequence. Indeed, if there’s anything undemocratic, it’s the GOP’s war on President Obama’s ability to make nominations, and to nullify one consequence of the 2012 elections.

Salon’s Brian Beutler points out one of those consequences:

Over the course of several decades, the right has nurtured what essentially amounts to a shadow judiciary, composed of conservative legal scholars who disagree, juridically and ideologically, with the post-New Deal consensus. Republican presidents draw upon this class of activists to fill judicial vacancies, creating a modern antipode to liberal judicial activists of previous decades.

As that movement has matured, and in part because that movement has matured, politics has shrunk the ideological sphere from which Democratic presidents have been able cull liberal jurists. Outspoken progressives, on the periphery of the sphere, have been marginalized. The liberal legal establishment is so scrutinized and subject to so many litmus tests that it has self-selected for timid or self-censoring thinkers, at least in part because it was assumed “liberal activists” would be blocked.

That limiting force is gone now. And the hope is its absence draws a new generation of legal minds out of the shadows and on to the bench sooner than later.

That may indeed seem like the end of the world to Republicans, but Kevin Drum isn’t surprised this happened to them:

By refusing to compromise in any way, they’ve lost everything. Just as they lost everything on health care by refusing to engage with Democrats on the Affordable Care Act. Just as they lost everything on the government shutdown and the debt ceiling. Just as they lost the 2012 election.

Hard-nosed obstinacy plays well with the base, but it’s not a winning strategy in the end. Republicans never seem to learn that lesson.

No, they don’t, which is why anyone who has ever been a high-school English teacher is reminded of the kid convinced that this or that is the end of the world. Sigh. Whatever it is, it isn’t the end of the world, just something new to them. They’ll adapt, or forget about the whole thing in a day or two. We’re simply dealing with adolescent angst here too, and it’s still tiresome.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to The End of the World Again

  1. Rick says:

    Okay, the reason today’s theme doesn’t quite work for me is that, as “tiresome” as some teenage girl who thinks it’s the end of the world because she has a pimple on the end of her nose can be (I’m picturing my own teenage daughter here), she’s really only the innocent victim of adolescence, a stage in life that almost everyone somehow survives, unharmed.

    On the other hand, these guys of the minority party who are disingenuously claiming it’s the end of the democracy because somebody stopped them from overriding the will of the majority, are not the victims, they are — and this should be obvious to everyone, even themselves — the bad guys.

    Here’s Senator Mitch McConnell:

    “I say to my friends on the other side of the aisle, you’ll regret this. And you may regret it a lot sooner than you think.”

    Does he not realize he sounds like the villain in some movie? I assume he means his peeps will soon bring all Senate work to a standstill by filibustering regular legislation rather than merely presidential appointments, which is something Harry Reid didn’t yet put a stop to.

    But McConnell’s not the only one pouring it on pretty thick:

    “Louisiana Sen. David Vitter has said that this is ‘a shame for the Senate’ and ‘scary and dictatorial’ for the country.”

    I suppose it’s not shocking that Republicans would say this sort of thing, but I can’t help but wonder if they actually realize they’re talking bullshit. Somebody needs to remind these people why this happened.

    It’s because, since the guys who wrote the Constitution knew they could never make the document comprehensive enough to manage every tiny detail of how the Senate would be run, they trusted the members themselves to write their own rules. They had to know they were, by default, creating an honor system, one that depended on the good will of the members themselves to deal in good faith with one another. It was, by necessity, a delicate machine that relied heavily on conscience and patriotism, and with luck, future generations would always be aware of this, and honor it.

    For example, future Senators might establish rules that protected the right of a minority to make life a little difficult for the majority, such as with the filibuster, but hopefully no member would ever choose to abuse this power, thereby upsetting the delicate balance of the machine.

    The framers, of course, never anticipated today’s Republicans.

    The fact is, these Republicans, hoping nobody would notice, have changed the rules of governance for the whole country, from one of majority rule to minority rule — although I’m sure they intend that to be only temporarily, fully intending to change it back when and if they ever become the majority again.

    And they can get away with it, knowing the Democrats will never have the nerve do the same thing to them, knowing that the Democrats don’t believe that’s the way a country should be governed.

    So the more permanent situation for the country will be this:

    When Republicans are the majority, they will be in charge, but when they’re in the minority, they will be in charge. In other words, heads they win, tails we lose.

    One more thing to remember is, especially when you hear Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley arguing that no more judges are really needed on the DC Circuit, that all this skirmishing over appointing judges is no haphazard accident:

    I’m not sure, but I think it was Howard Fineman who, on Thursday, was asked by one of the anchors on MSNBC (I’ve been watching more and more MSNBC, the older I get) why all this is happening, and (me paraphrasing here) he pointed out that it all goes back to the Federalist Society, a bunch of conservatives and libertarians — a group that has included Ed Meese, Robert Bork, Ted Olson, Antonin Scalia, John Roberts, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito — who, apparently realizing they can’t count on getting their way through the ballot box, are hell-bent on making conservative judges the majority all federal courts.

    Up to this point, they were winning, but maybe now, the tide will turn.

    Rick

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