THE BLOG
05/31/2013 12:55 am ET | Updated Jul 31, 2013

Filibuster Reform Reminds Us That the Real Scandal Hurting the Country Right Now Isn't in the Executive Branch

When I saw the Huffington Post banner headline "End of the Line" Thursday, linking to a story on how Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is considering changing the chamber's filibuster rules based on a majority vote, it occurred to me that this was an issue that is worthy of major coverage in the mainstream news media. And yet, I was quite sure it wouldn't be enough to push the White House "scandals" off the front burner.

After all, if you flipped on a news or entertainment program for the last two weeks, you have likely been inundated with news and jokes about the three "scandals" affecting the Obama administration. The fact that this is the narrative shows how truly corrupted our political process has become, and how lazy the news media have become in utterly failing in their role as the fourth estate, holding elected officials accountable for their actions.

Yes, the coverage of the White House "scandals" is looking at what government officials did, but the issues are so unimportant compared to real malfeasance that is having a real effect on the country.

If the job of the press is to report on how the conduct of elected officials has an actual impact on how we live our day-to-day lives, and on behavior that is consciously and directly bad for the vast majority of the country and the day-to-day workings of the government, there should be a tsunami of coverage of how Republicans in power in Congress are trying to subvert American democracy and putting iron-clad ideological beliefs (that are far out of the mainstream) ahead of governing and doing what is best for the country. Specifically, Republicans in the Senate are abusing the filibuster to keep jobs -- in both the executive and judicial branches -- unfilled while sitting idly by and letting economic growth take a hit in the name of ideology.

I'll get to specifics in a minute, but first, no, I am not writing this because "my team" is being targeted. Let's quickly go over the three Obama administration "scandals" and why they are either non-stories or minor ones.

- Benghazi. Republicans are using the tragedy of the death of four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, to score political points. They have lied about what was in State Department emails. And they have been lying about what went on in the first place. Think the fact that Hillary Clinton would be a formidable presidential candidate in 2016 has anything to do with the Republicans politicizing an American tragedy? Considering Karl Rove's Super PAC ran ads smearing Clinton in conjunction with Benghazi, GOP motives are quite clear.

Benghazi is a scandal all right, but the scandal is the Republican abuse of power. Rep. Darrell Issa has abused his position as chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to investigate non-scandals for political gain. So it was a great moment when Attorney General Eric Holder went Joseph Welch on Issa during a House Judiciary Committee meeting, calling his conduct "unacceptable" and "shameful."

- IRS. Clearly, if a government agency targets organizations based on their ideology, that conduct should be investigated and condemned. So what did the Justice Department do upon finding out about the potentially illegal conduct? It launched an investigation. And what did the president do when he found out about the alleged IRS conduct? He condemned it. There is no evidence the president knew about the alleged Tea Party targeting, let alone that he ordered it. And it's not like there isn't reason to investigate if Tea Party groups were misusing apolitical, tax-free organizations to do political work without disclosing their donors. (After all, when you think of Rove, the first thing you think of is charity work, right?)

So while there may have been some unethical and/or illegal activity at the IRS, the Obama administration (and the president himself) has appropriately responded. Where is the scandal?

- AP. The fact that Republicans are complaining about government breaches in investigating media to determine the source of leaks is a dictionary-worthy example of the pot calling the kettle black. The GOP is screaming bloody murder over behavior they have engaged in for years. More importantly, like with the IRS investigation, there is no evidence that the president was involved in the decision to pull the AP phone records.

None of these "scandals" reveal any corruption in the Obama administration (or the president himself), and any wrongdoing is being investigated. None of what has happened has an impact on the life of the average American. The news media, of course, should cover what has happened, but they have to do so in perspective. None of these stories involve larger scale problems with the integrity of the government. And the impact is far less to the economy, our government and our democracy than what is resulting from what the Republicans are doing in Congress. The GOP's actions are unprecedented in modern history.


Which leads us back to the Republican abuse of the filibuster and other procedural devices that prevent Senate votes not only on legislation, but on confirming nominees for federal court judges and executive department positions. In fact, they are trying to incapacitate the National Labor Relations Board by not approving nominees for new members, so that when the chair's term expires in August, there will be nobody left on the board. What the GOP is doing is nothing short of an assault on the federal government.


There are 79 judicial vacancies in federal courts right now, an unprecedented number. The lack of judges is affecting the ability of the federal judicial system to function. The reason is simple: Republicans in the Senate are refusing to allow a vote on the president's nominees. And they've done so (I'm going to use the word again) in an unprecedented manner, with Obama having far fewer nominations confirmed than any recent president (42.8 percent compared to 86.8 percent for George W. Bush, 79.3 percent for George H.W. Bush and 93.1 percent for Ronald Reagan). 

The GOP has become so detached from reality that when the president nominated three judges for vacancies on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit this week, Sen. Charles Grassley charged Obama with trying to pack the court. Think about that. The Republicans in the Senate have become so ideological they have turned a basic job of the president, to appoint judges, into something nefarious.


Which is why Reid is, as Huffington Post reported as its top story Thursday, considering changing the Senate rules on a majority vote (the so-called "nuclear option") to make it harder for Republicans to repeatedly and strategically obstruct by not allowing votes on the president's nominees. And if you think Reid is off the rails, consider that the impetus for the Huffington Post article was that Norm Ornstein of the staunchly conservative American Enterprise Institute now supports changing the Senate rules. Ornstein's description of Grassley points to how far the Republicans in Congress have wandered from not only the mainstream, but from the responsibility to govern and, really, reality: 


"I laughed for several reasons. One was wondering whether a senior
senator and longtime member of the Judiciary Committee really had no
idea what court packing is, or was he reaching for new heights of
disingenuousness: How could a move by a president simply to fill
long-standing existing vacancies on federal courts be termed court
packing?"


Now, I'm sure some people are saying, "Well, the Republicans are playing games with a few judicial nominations. So what?" But the problem is, the obstruction on the judges is part of a bigger trend. The GOP has gone filibuster crazy, blocking the chance for any legislation to pass. The Republicans in the Senate have used the filibuster far more often than any Senate minority party ever has. The GOP senators have forced 360 filibuster votes since the Democrats took control of the Senate in 2007. By way of comparison, the Democrats only required 164 filibuster votes in the six years the Republicans controlled the Senate during the Bush presidency.


And for what? Why is the GOP filibustering everything? Because they have devolved into a party that is out of touch with reality, wedded to a far-right ideology (including a commitment to austerity and the destruction of government that is based on trumped up data and advanced without evidence or logic) and unwilling to compromise in an effort to govern and move the country forward. Bob Dole, nobody's version of a liberal, spoke out last week on how the modern Republican party has gone so far astray, he, Nixon and even Ronald Reagan would have no place in the party today.

That is why the Tea Party senators, including Rand Paul, are not even letting the budget passed by the Senate go to conference with the House without imposing debt ceiling-related requirements. In response, Republican senators John McCain and Susan Collins condemned Paul's obstruction on the floor of the Senate.   

That is why the GOP in Congress are happy to sit idly by and watch the sequester drag down economic growth and job creation.

That is why, with unemployment still high, the Republican-controlled House instead is obsessed with abortion restrictions and 37 votes to repeal Obamacare. (As an aside about the lazy media, earlier in the week there was much reporting of how a CNN poll found that only 43 percent supported Obamacare, while 51 percent opposed it. But few outlets reported that only 35 percent opposed Obamacare because it was too liberal, while 16 percent opposed the law because it was too conservative. So the poll found that 59 percent of respondents wanted some kind of health care reform that was at least as comprehensive as the Affordable Care Act, while only 35 percent supported the pre-reform status quo. But few reported it that way.)

So while the news media and late night comedy show hosts are obsessed with three so-called scandals involving the executive branch, our democracy is under attack by Republicans in Congress more interested in ideological purity than governing in the best interests of most Americans. And they are backing up their anti-government mission with unprecedented obstructionism intended to damage the country for strategic purposes.

Rather than be outraged by IRS audits and phone lists, the focus should be on how the Republicans have turned into a party that no longer has any interest in compromise or governing, and certainly doesn't have the best interests of most Americans in mind when they act. That is the real scandal going on right now, even if you wouldn't know it from turning on the television.