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“What We Left Behind In 2013”: Americans Shouldn’t Accept The Low Standards Of Congress’s New Normal

I think we all breathed a sigh of relief this week when Congress finally did what it was supposed to do and passed a basic budget. Although the budget left many behind, this time there were no shutdowns, no debt ceiling scares, no fears of economic catastrophe. They just got down to work and passed a budget that allows our government to run.

I felt similarly relieved when the Senate changed its rules to put an end to the GOP obstruction that had kept seats on our courts across the country vacant out of misplaced political spite and pure obstructionism. Although Republicans are still doing everything they can to hold up the process, some long-blocked nominees are finally getting confirmed.

Yes, things are getting better. But that’s not saying much. Republicans have lowered the standards of Congress so much that the completion of a basic task like passing a budget or confirming a non-controversial judge is now cause for celebration. Americans shouldn’t accept the low standards of this new normal.

It’s like the relief of having a tooth pulled. The ache that’s been with you for so long is gone, the sharp pain of having it pulled is over. But there’s something missing.

As we look forward to the year ahead, let’s remember the tasks we left behind in the rancorous, bitter 2013. Relief is not enough. Progressives must redouble our efforts not only to make up lost ground but to make positive progress in the coming year.

Relief For Low-Income Americans. It was good news that Congress passed a budget. But that budget left some important programs behind. Last month, 47 million low-income Americans saw their SNAP (food stamp) benefits cut, leaving them with even less money to buy food for their families. Three days after Christmas, 1.3 million Americans will see their emergency unemployment insurance dry up, leaving many of the long-term unemployed with little to keep themselves afloat, and hurting the economy as a whole. Next year, Congress must work to boost our economy in a way that doesn’t leave behind those who are out of work or underemployed.

Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Gay-rights supporters rejoiced last month when the Senate passed a bill banning employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, a measure that garnered unexpected support from a number of Republicans. But Speaker Boehner shows no desire to bring the bill to the House floor. Progressives need to make sure House Republicans pay a political price if they kill a nondiscrimination bill supported by 70 percent of Americans.

Ending the Judicial Vacancy Crisis. A minority of Senate Republicans can no longer block all of the president’s judicial nominees from getting confirmation votes, but there’s plenty of lost ground to make up. One in ten seats on the federal courts is now or will soon be vacant, and there’s a growing number of urgent “judicial emergencies.” And now Republicans are stepping up their obstruction in other ways, even indicating that they will send 55 nominees back to the president at the end of the year, forcing the White House and the Senate to start the nominations process all over again. The 41-vote filibuster may be dead, but the fight to put good judges on the courts is just as important.

Updating our Immigration Laws. There was a rare bit of bipartisan hope this year when the Senate’s bipartisan “Gang of 8” hammered out an agreement for a much-needed update to our immigration laws, including a roadmap to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. The bill provoked a Tea Party uproar and got stuck in the House, but with enough pressure from the public, next year presents an opportunity to create a chance for thousands of immigrant families.

Protecting Voting Rights. As soon as the Supreme Court struck down the key enforcement provision of the Voting Rights Act, states across the South started instituting restrictive new voting laws designed to keep people of color, low-income people, and the young from voting. This was an undeniable setback, but we now have an opportunity to update VRA’s protections…if reasonable members of Congress will work together to get it done.

Defending Choice in the States. Congress may have been at a standstill last year, but many state legislatures weren’t. On top of a barrage of voting restrictions, Republican state legislatures continued the recent flood of anti-choice laws making it harder for women to access birth control and abortions. In just the first half of the year, states adopted 43 restrictions on abortion. But there were also positive trends as state legislators across the country worked toward positive, pro-woman policies. The War on Women is far from over, but we have the chance to achieve positive women’s rights victories in the states.

Fighting the Influx of Big Money in Politics. The 2010 Citizens United decision was bad enough, opening the door to unlimited corporate spending in elections. But this year saw the Supreme Court considering another major campaign finance case, McCutcheon v. FEC, that could allow the wealthiest donors to flood our political system with even more money. Luckily, 2013 also made clear that “We the People” have had enough. The movement to reclaim our democracy from special interests has never been stronger. To date, 16 states and more than 500 cities and towns have passed resolutions or ballot initiatives calling on Congress to pass an amendment overturning Citizens United and putting the power of our democracy back in the hands of everyday Americans. And 145 members of the House and Senate are now on record as co-sponsors of an amendment.

Barely functioning is not enough. We have a lot of work to do. Here’s to higher standards in 2014!

 

By: Michael B. Keegan, President, People For the American Way, The Huffington Post Blog, December 20, 2013

December 22, 2013 Posted by | Congress | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“So Much For The Fabric Of Freedom”: When Republicans Thought It Was Okay For Judicial Nominees To Have Opinions

Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee spent yesterday’s confirmation hearing on D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals nominee Nina Pillard harping on two points: first, that they think the D.C. Circuit doesn’t need its three vacancies filled, and second, that they think Pillard’s arguments as an academic mean she would disregard the law as a judge.

As it happens, when George W. Bush was the one nominating federal judges, the very same senators held the exact opposite view on both of these issues.

As People For the American Way has extensively shown, the argument that the D.C. Circuit doesn’t need judges holds no water – in fact, Bush nominees Thomas Griffith and John Roberts (now Chief Justice) were confirmed to the D.C. Circuit when each active judge’s caseload was significantly lower than it is today.

And Republican attacks on Pillard’s academic writings also directly contradict their previous statements on Bush nominees with academic records. As Pillard noted in her hearing, “Academics are paid to test the boundaries and look at the implications of things. As a judge, I would apply established law of the U.S. Supreme Court and the D.C. Circuit.”

Just a few years ago, Republican senators agreed. On the nomination of Tenth Circuit judge Michael McConnell, who took a number of far-right stands as an academic, including disagreeing with a Supreme Court decision declaring that a university ban on interracial dating constituted racial discrimination, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch said, “The diversity of backgrounds and points of view are often the stitches holding together the fabric of our freedoms.”

“Surely, we can’t vote for or against a nominee on whether they agree with us on any number of a host of moral and religious issues, ” Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions said of Eleventh Circuit nominee William Pryor, a far-right culture warrior who was outspoken in opposition to gay rights, women’s rights and the separation of church and state.

Then-Sen. Jim Demint defended D.C. Circuit Judge Janice Rogers Brown, one of the most outspoken conservative ideologues on the federal bench today, by saying, “A person with strong beliefs and personal convictions should not be barred from being a judge. In fact, I would rather have an honest liberal serve as a judge than one who has been neutered by fear of public opinion.”

And before the Senate confirmed Arkansas District Court Judge J. Leon Holmes, who used Todd Akin’s line about pregnancy from rape before Todd Akin did, Hatch told concerned colleagues,  “This man is a very religious man who has made it more than clear that he will abide by the law even when he differs with it.”

These Bush nominees held positions that were clearly far out of the mainstream, yet Senate Republicans demanded and got yes-or-no confirmation votes on them, helping Bush to shift the federal judiciary far to the right.

What some Judiciary Committee Republicans objected to at yesterday’s hearings is what they apparently see as Pillard’s excessive support for women’s equality, both as an attorney and an academic. Pillard won the Supreme Court case opening the Virginia Military Institute to women and worked with Bush administration officials to successfully defend the Family and Medical Leave Act.  She has strongly defended reproductive rights and criticized abstinence-only education that sends different messages to boys and girls. It’s this record that  her Republican opponents have distorted beyond recognition.

By any measure, Pillard is well within the mainstream, and has made it very clear that she understands that the role of a judge is to apply existing law regardless of one’s personal views. But while Senate Republicans made plenty of excuses for Bush nominees who were far outside the mainstream, they are accusing Pillard of being just too much of a women’s rights supporter to fairly apply the law.

 

By: Miranda Blue, Right Wing Watch, July 25, 2013

July 26, 2013 Posted by | Republicans, Senate | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Culture Of GOP Obstruction”: When Basic Governance Is Deemed Controversial

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, widely seen as the nation’s second most important federal bench, has three vacancies. President Obama yesterday introduced three non-controversial nominees to fill those vacancies. And were it not for the breakdowns of the American political process, none of this would be especially interesting.

But here we are.

Senate Republicans have come up with lots of reasons for not wanting to advance President Barack Obama’s nominees to the powerful U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, whether it be false accusations of “court-packing” or claims that the court doesn’t need its three vacancies filled because it’s not busy enough.

On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) argued there was another problem with moving Obama’s nominees: a “culture of intimidation” being fueled by Democrats.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) went further, responding to the nominees by telling reporters, “There is no basis for the president inventing these crises. It’s unpresidential. It’s embarrassing to me.”

Just so we’re clear, we’ve apparently reached the point at which a president nominating judges to fill existing vacancies is seen by Republicans as outrageous. They not only decry “court packing” — a phrase they use but clearly do not understand — they also feel “intimidated” and “embarrassed” by a basic governmental process outlined by the Constitution.

Indeed, according to Lamar Alexander, Obama is creating a “crisis.” Worse, it’s “unpresidential” for the president to exercise his presidential duties. I realize it’s a little unusual for the White House to introduce three judicial nominees at once, but this GOP freak-out is excessive by any sensible standard.

But, Mitch McConnell says, there’s no reason for Democrats to complain. “You know, we’ve confirmed an overwhelming number of judges for President Obama,” the Minority Leader told reporters yesterday. “So the president’s been treated very fairly on judicial [nominees].”

Is this true?

Greg Sargent took a closer look.

It is not easy to conclusively determine whether GOP obstructionism is unprecedented. But there are some data points we can look at. For instance, Dr. Sheldon Goldman, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts who focuses on judicial nominations, has developed what he calls an “Index of Obstruction and Delay” designed to measure levels of obstructionism. In research that will be released in a July article he co-authored for Judicature Journal, he has calculated that the level of obstruction of Obama circuit court nominees during the last Congress was unprecedented.

Goldman calculates his Index of Obstruction and Delay by adding together the number of unconfirmed nominations, plus the number of nominations that took more than 180 days to confirm (not including nominations towards the end of a given Congress) and dividing that by the total number of nominations. During the last Congress, Goldman calculates, the Index of Obstruction and Delay for Obama circuit court nominations was 0.9524.

Goldman told Greg, “That’s the highest that’s ever been recorded.” He added, in reference to the most recent Congress, “[I]t is unprecedented for the minority party to obstruct and delay to the level that Republicans have done to Obama in the 112th Congress.”

The Congressional Research Service also found (pdf), “President Obama is the only one of the five most recent Presidents for whom, during his first term, both the average and median waiting time from nomination to confirmation for circuit and district court nominees was greater than half a calendar year (i.e., more than 182 days).”

It appears that by objective standards, McConnell’s boasts have no basis in fact. Imagine that.

Nevertheless, the Minority Leader yesterday refused to commit to allowing the Senate to vote up or down on the new nominees, not because he can think of something wrong with them, but because he thinks the D.C. Circuit isn’t busy enough to need filled vacancies.

With each passing day, the “nuclear option” becomes more viable.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, June 5, 2013

June 7, 2013 Posted by | Federal Courts, Politics | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Fight Worth Having”: A Strategy On Judicial Nominees Takes Shape

For nearly five years, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit — aka, the D.C. Circuit — has had seven sitting judges hearing cases, four from judges appointed by Republican presidents and three from Democratic presidents. Last week, President Obama finally saw one of his nominees confirmed to this bench, bringing some parity to the appeals court.

There are, however, three remaining vacancies, which Senate Republicans would love to keep vacant indefinitely. What does the White House plan to do about it? A plan has apparently come together.

President Obama will soon accelerate his efforts to put a lasting imprint on the country’s judiciary by simultaneously nominating three judges to an important federal court, a move that is certain to unleash fierce Republican opposition and could rekindle a broader partisan struggle over Senate rules. […]

White House officials declined to say who Mr. Obama’s choices will be ahead of an announcement that could come this week, but leading contenders for the spots appear to include Cornelia T. L. Pillard, a law professor at the Georgetown University Law Center; David C. Frederick, who often represents consumers and investors at the Supreme Court; and Patricia Ann Millett, a veteran appeals lawyer in Washington. All three are experienced lawyers who would be unlikely to generate controversy individually.

For those hoping for a more progressive federal judiciary, there’s a lot to like in this plan. Indeed, it’s arguably overdue.

It’s a pretty straightforward exercise — Obama has to nominate jurists to fill these vacancies, and he’s apparently focused on three excellent, mainstream choices, who would ordinarily garner broad support. From the White House’s perspective, if Senate Republicans act responsibly, great — the nominees will be confirmed, the D.C. Circuit will be at full strength, and the bench will be less conservative.

If Senate Republicans act irresponsibly and block these nominees out of partisan spite, Democrats will have even more incentive to pursue the “nuclear option” and end this style of obstructionism altogether.

And just to reiterate a relevant detail, filling judicial vacancies is important everywhere, but the D.C. Circuit is of particular significance — not only is it often a proving ground for future Supreme Court justices, but the D.C. Circuit regularly hears regulatory challenges to the Obama administration’s agenda. Indeed, as the NYT report noted, this bench “has overturned major parts of the president’s agenda in the last four years, on regulations covering Wall Street, the environment, tobacco, labor unions and workers’ rights.”

With this in mind, it’s a fight worth watching.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, May 28, 2013

May 29, 2013 Posted by | Federal Courts | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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