By Columnist Susan Estrich
In the past two weeks, three highly qualified candidates for the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit found themselves blocked because Republicans would not allow their nominations to be voted on.
The reason had nothing to do with their qualifications. It was pure partisan politics: an effort by Republicans to limit the power that the president has, under the Constitution no less, to appoint members of the federal judiciary. The three were appointed to fill open seats. The court they were appointed to serve on is powerful. So Republicans said no.
And then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said no even louder, and action that had been threatened for years by leaders from both sides was voted on. The rules by which the Senate has operated were changed. There will be no more filibusters, save for nominees to the United States Supreme Court.
The good news is that the three qualified nominees will now get a vote and be confirmed.
The bad news is that the United States Senate is no longer a functioning institution.
It is not a happy day.
What goes around will almost surely come around. Everyone knows that. No one was celebrating. Everyone is to blame. It's an ugly game, and it needed to end.
This time it was Republicans blocking Democrats. Last time it was and next time it may be Democrats who are shut out.
The new rules don't fix things. Quite the contrary. The new rules were made because members of the U.S. Senate, supposedly "leaders" of this country, could not come together to solve the problem. They could not get along. They could not find common ground.
So from now on, they won't even try.
Pitiful. Just pitiful.
The advantage of the old system was that it gave the power to those in the middle, expected them to be able to work across party lines, insisted that they figure out how to get along – at least when the majority has fewer than 60 seats.
It demanded of senators a kind of maturity, a breadth of perspective, a commitment to compromise that old-fashioned folks like myself think of as the essence of politics, the lifeblood of democracy.
Oh, I can tell stories, like old-timers do, of how Sen. Strom Thurmond agreed to allow the nomination of Stephen Breyer (then my boss on the Senate Judiciary Committee) to the Court of Appeals to go forward – even though Democrats had just lost both the Senate and the White House. But Thurmond respected Breyer's brilliance and fairness and integrity as the committee's chief counsel, and he and the committee's chair, Sen. Ted Kennedy, worked together, just as Kennedy did in later days with Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch.
Those guys were "big" – and I'm not talking height and weight. They were men of real stature.
I was just a kid. I thought being in the Senate was a big deal. I looked up to these men.
Sure, there are some very able men and women in the Senate today. I have no doubt that they love their country as much as their predecessors did. But even the best of them end up getting infected by the partisan poison that has gripped our politics and ultimately paralyzed the Senate. I'm not even surprised anymore when a senator tells me (after years of incessant fundraising and endless travel and campaigning) that they actually "hate" their job, that getting up and going to work every morning is miserable because they don't get anything done.
So if you can't fix what's broken, you change the rules and move on.
And here's the worst of it. There are real ideological differences between Democrats and Republicans, legitimate divides. But those divides are nothing compared to what folks face around the globe, where divisions are measured in decades of war and violence and hatred. And if we can't be a model for the world, if compromise is too hard for 100 men and women who have far more in common, then what does that say about democracy?