Two Cheers for a Rare Senate Compromise

The deal on presidential appointments staves off a partisan meltdown — for now


The U.S. Senate has averted the fearsome specter that stalked the chamber for weeks: majority rule. Much as small-D democrats may not like it, there is reason to be glad the capital-D Democrats and their Republican colleagues found a way out of the procedural paper bag that so often renders their beloved institution impotent.

A bipartisan deal paved the way for votes on long-delayed executive appointments, beginning with Richard Cordray, President Obama’s nominee to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. After two years of Republican obstruction and an attempt by Obama to circumvent opposition through a recess appointment, senators voted 71-29 to allow debate on Cordray to proceed. He was confirmed by a vote of 66-34 later in the day.

Republicans have also opposed the nominations of Thomas Perez for labor secretary and Gina McCarthy to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Both should now receive votes, along with Fred Hochberg, who was renominated to lead the U.S. Export-Import Bank. In return, Obama agreed to withdraw two nominees to the National Labor Relations Board and nominate replacements.

The filibuster in general, and its chronic abuse throughout Obama’s presidency in particular, has exacerbated both governmental dysfunction and political feuding in the Capitol. Some Senate rules, including those governing the filibuster, border on obscurantism. But they have a loyal constituency that includes institutionalists as well as obstructionists, so they cannot be casually dismissed.

The deal reached on July 16, which enables straight majority votes on executive appointments while still affording senators the right to mire judicial appointments and other matters in supermajority quicksand, addresses the immediate crisis of leaderless executive agencies. It also avoids the rancor (and revenge fantasies) that the so-called nuclear option, which would have changed Senate rules, seemed destined to produce. Washington has enough polarization for the time being, thank you.

The minority party will always have a fondness for the filibuster, of course. No senator who has ever been, or worried about being, in the minority — which is to say, every senator — is going to willingly give up such a powerful parliamentary tactic. But there is a more valid and straightforward way to gain power in Congress — winning the next election.

It’s a Capitol Hill version of the chicken-egg question: Does the filibuster encourage partisanship, or is it the other way around? We will leave that to the great minds. The filibuster remains on the table, as does the potential for the nuclear option. Meanwhile, both parties saw fit to sheathe their weapons and come to an agreement. In today’s Congress, that’s no small achievement.


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