GOP Cabinet boycott reaffirms Senate is archaic embarrassment

Republicans try the "you did it first" defense after attempting to sabotage yet another Obama appointee

Published May 10, 2013 12:18PM (EDT)

Ted Cruz           (Jeff Malet,
Ted Cruz (Jeff Malet,

Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works committee yesterday unexpectedly boycotted a vote to confirm Gina McCarthy, President Barack Obama's pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency, denying the committee a quorum and preventing McCarthy from moving to a full confirmation vote. The move, announced Thursday morning, was unexpected. It made Democrats mad. It shouldn't have been unexpected.

The issue is that Republicans won't sign on to McCarthy -- or any EPA administrator -- until she agrees to force the EPA to submit everything they do to a very "business-friendly" (time- and money-intensive) analysis. Here's how Politico explains it:

Republican leaders were unmoved, though, saying the Obama administration deserves blame for the impasse by refusing to fully answer questions that GOP nominees have posed about McCarthy and EPA. They include questions about the “underlying data used to justify EPA’s job-killing regulations,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a statement to POLITICO.

Here's how the New York Times editorial page's Robert B. Semple Jr. explains it:

A case in point was the request that the agency undertake “whole economy” cost-benefits analysis of its rules and regulations. Ms. McCarthy had earlier replied that the agency already conducts detailed, peer-reviewed analyses of those rules. So what more do Mr. Vitter and his colleagues expect? They want the agency to superimpose on its own reviews an industry-friendly cost-benefit model that — in addition to adding new layers of bureaucratic red tape — could also lead to weaker regulation. Their other requests would impose similarly time-consuming and non-essential burdens.

I quote both paragraphs in full to make a minor point: I shouldn't have to go to an opinion writer or ideologically aligned journalist to figure out what Republicans are actually asking for here. I'm not complaining that the boilerplate objective version is too charitable to Republicans -- though it is -- I'm saying it's too vague. There's nothing in the objective mainstream reporter handbook that says you have to completely avoid explaining the contours of the argument. Some context on "whole economy" cost-benefit analyses analysis would be useful in figuring out this dispute, even in a story that goes out of its way to be fair to both sides. Lest you think I'm picking on Politico, the AP version was even more vague..

But this is "dog bites man news," and therefore not news. Senate Republicans are blocking the confirmation of an Obama appointee they admit is qualified and not personally offensive (she was a Romney appointee for chrissakes), because they want the EPA to not carry out its mission. They will abuse Senate procedure to get their way. The press is now so used to this that there will be essentially no outcry. Either they will pointlessly delay this for a while and then give in or they'll just keep going until Obama pulls the nomination -- the ball is in their court, even though they are the minority party in the Senate. They've gotten used to this sort of power, and, more important, the ability to wield it without incurring negative consequences. The press has processed GOP obstruction as normal and reports on it as such. Democrats make noise about reforming Senate rules and never actually do. This is how they've also kept the courts conservative and how they have almost succeeded in crippling the National Labor Relations Board. Cranky liberal bloggers call it nullification, and no one else cares.

Though that's not quite true. It's not that no one cares. The Republicans on the EPW committee know that some people care a great deal, and those people are the dedicated activist conservatives who fund campaigns and turn out for primaries. The total takeover of the entire Republican Primary system by movement conservatives has prevented Republicans from retaking the Senate, but it's been quite effective in making every Senate Republican act as much like Ted Cruz as they think they can get away with. For a Republican elected official, there's very little downside to preventing the EPA from performing its congressionally mandated function. The press will barely notice and the talk radio listeners back home will admire your guts.

Here's the qualifying detail: Democrats did this to Bush once, too. In 2003 Democrats used a similar boycott to delay a vote on Bush EPA administrator nominee Mike Leavitt. Republicans at the time, obviously, were outraged. (If you want a sense of how different a time 2003 was, read the second-to-last paragraph of that story, in which the process of filing for cloture to break a hold or filibuster is explained in great detail, because at the time that was still an unusual occurrence.) Both sides have participated in the arms race that is the exploitation of Senate rules and violation of Senate norms. Democrats felt they had very good reasons to resort to extreme measures to block Bush's agenda. Republicans currently feel the same way.

At the time, it was widely reported that the number of questions Democrats demanded answers to was unprecedented (400! More than 1,100 questions have been submitted to McCarthy, with 1,075 of them coming from David Vitter), and it was also acknowledged that their real beef wasn't with Leavitt, but with how the Bush administration would interpret the Clean Air Act. This is the exact precedent Republicans are now using to justify their boycott. ("You did it first" is considered a perfectly legitimate position in Congress.) So, with that in mind, let's look at what happened next: Leavitt went on to be confirmed 88-8, a little more than two months after the announcement of his nomination. It remains to be seen whether Republicans will allow McCarthy to be confirmed at all, and I won't be remotely surprised if they don't.

Here's another important difference. At the same time that Republicans are blocking McCarthy's confirmation, this is happening:

On Wednesday, a confirmation vote on Thomas Perez’s nomination for labor secretary was postponed amid GOP threats to invoke an obscure procedural rule that would have prevented the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee from meeting.

And this is happening:

A top House Republican won't allow Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray to testify before his congressional committee, saying Mr. Cordray doesn't legitimately head the agency because of the controversial way in which he was appointed last year.

And this (make sure to read this block quote, it's the best one) is happening:

Meanwhile, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., continues his hold of Ernest Moniz to be Obama’s Energy secretary not because of the nominee himself but because of cuts to a nuclear-waste facility in his state. His office confirmed Thursday that nothing has changed on that front.

It's not the individual case, it's the very obvious GOP strategy of blocking everything they can and delaying what they can't.

But perhaps my views color my analysis. In that case, I bring up the precedent not merely to say that Republicans are worse when they do this than Democrats are (though they are, obviously, because on the whole they're stupider and more extreme), but simply because it strengthens the bipartisan case for abolishing the Senate, a useless, undemocratic vestigial legislative body that is an embarrassment to America.

By Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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