The Constitution provides that certain positions in the executive branch, as well as all federal judges, are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate with a simple majority vote. Thus, as the administration of newly elected president Donald Trump gets going, there’s a rash of confirmation votes being taken in the Senate.
By the rules of the Senate, all it takes is one Senator to filibuster a bill. In the past, a Senator actually had to get up and start talking and refuse to stop, and that was a filibuster. Now, all a Senator has to do is say “I filibuster,” or “I’m putting a hold on that bill,” and a filibuster is automatically in effect. When that happens, it takes 60 votes to overcome it and bring the bill to a vote, in the process called cloture. Now, until recently, that could happen with confirmation votes. However, back when Obama was president and the Democrats still had a simple majority in the Senate (not a 60-vote supermajority) , when the Republican minority was using the filibuster to obstruct Obama’s nominees to a number of positions, the Democrats employed what was called the “nuclear option” and abolished the power of the filibuster for confirmation votes, except Supreme Court positions. So, while the Democrats are in a position to make sure that hearings are drawn out, they’re not in a position to obstruct Trump’s choices for cabinet positions and federal courts other than the Supreme Court.
But for the Supreme Court, there may well be filibusters. It should be remembered that, when Antonin Scalia died early last spring, Obama nominated Merrick Garland and the Republicans, now with their majority in the Senate, refused even to have hearings on him. If Trump nominates someone whom the Democrats object to, the Democrats may filibuster, but the Republicans can always use the “nuclear option” to take away that power. The thing about the filibuster is, the majority party can always vote to abolish it, but they’re reluctant to, because they’ll be in the minority soon enough, at which time they’ll need it.
Now, a quick review of a point that’s come up before: Trump’s cabinet members have to be confirmed by the Senate, but White House staff don’t: they just answer directly to the chief. But Trump appears to be doing something very out of the ordinary, with regard to these two sets of appointees: having a “shadow cabinet”: a team of appointees who don’t have to pass confirmation, to breathe down the necks of the cabinet members who do. What will this accomplish? Well, it would appear to me that it’s Trump’s way of making the federal government as close as possible to his own personal business enterprise. But what do I know? That’s just how it seems to me.
Another thing to be watching: Trump is overtly baiting the news media to criticize him, and is in turn vilifying them as his tormenters. Now, a certain degree of adversarial tension between the president and the press is normal, but Trump has raised it to a very abnormal level. In the course of it, a new catch-phrase has just been coined. After Sean Spicer insisted to reporters last Saturday (after lecturing them on their bad behavior to date) that Trump had a record-breaking crowd watching his inauguration, KellyAnne Conway told TV watchers on Sunday that maybe this came in the category of “alternative facts.” You’re going to be hearing that term used about Trump for a long time to come.
And, he’s ordered a hiring freeze in parts of the federal bureaucracy, and a contract/project freeze in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as well as a media blackout: that is, he doesn’t want EPA bureaucrats talking to the press. But Representative Elijah Cummings, a Democrat from Maryland, has stepped up and announced that he hopes all federal workers who are concerned about the direction things are going in know that they can always talk to Congress, and that he personally would like to hear from them.
Let me spell something out, and this is just me, Ben Alexander, expressing my view. I was never convinced that Trump either expected or wanted to win this election. I regarded his campaign as a performance for nobody but his die-hard supporters, and I regard his presidency as just more of the same. But that’s just my own view. I’m glad to hear your views whether you agree or disagree with me.
And there’s loads more happening. In addition to the news feed links, I’ve added links to C-SPAN where you can see live and recent happenings on screen.
And what are some other developments and issues in the government that we need to be talking about? I’d really like to get some questions and comments from you here on this board, past and future students of my government classes. And, to the new set, I look forward to meeting you next week as we begin to navigate through the most bizarre period of political history that any of us have ever lived through. It’s not by any means fun for me to think about, but I figure we can all help each other make sense of it.