WASHINGTON – What if a single story dominated Congress for an entire election year, and four out of every five members had no formal avenue for getting involved?
That’s not a rhetorical question now. With the Great Supreme Court Standoff entering its third week, one of the most politicized balance-of-powers showdowns of modern times is still supposed to remain entirely between the president and the Senate. As anyone with a passing grade in civics understands, the House of Representatives has no official role in the “advice and consent” part of the confirmation process.
But that is not stopping some prominent House members from inserting themselves into the debate about seating a replacement for the late Justice Antonin Scalia. And the buttinsky roster is destined to grow along with the campaign season, as more and more lawmakers are pulled – by their constituents, local editorial boards or re-election opponents, if not their own egos – into a discussion that’s officially none of their business.
It’s a longstanding fact of congressional life how few House members can resist an open microphone, even when they know they’ll get asked about topics outside of their official purview – their powers enumerated in the 18 paragraphs of Article I, Section 8. Most assume they have the ability to get “good press,” and shore up their electoral base, with whatever musings they offer on almost any subject. So they weigh in all the time on matters (treaties along with executive and judicial nominations) that are entirely the Senate’s responsibility.
At least as often, congressmen go home and wade into municipal political feuds, county zoning fights, statehouse legislative showdowns and sometimes even whatever pop culture controversy is dominating the local water-cooler talk.
So it’s not surprising how even some of the House’s most conservative Republicans, the sort who have spent this decade griping about executive overreach into legislative prerogatives, have publicly taken the side of their senatorial counterpart. (The GOP senators say they won’t schedule hearings or a vote on President Barack Obama’s next high court nominee.)
The leadership of the ultra-right House Freedom Caucus met with Mitch McConnell last week to signal they had the Senate majority leader’s back – and to make just as clear to the Kentucky Republican that he’d best not disappoint them by backing the party away from its position.
“Leader McConnell has indicated he’s going to hold the line and continue to make sure that it’s the next president whose nominee gets confirmed in the Senate,” Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina said afterward. “It was reassuring, a message that honestly I’m going to take back to my grass-roots supporters to let them know that he’s heard the message and that he is standing with them.”
Speaker Paul D. Ryan has inveighed in favor of the Senate stonewalling any Obama nominee, arguing that it’s his business to take sides because keeping the court as eight justices for the rest of 2016 is in the House’s institutional best interest.
“The president has tried everything he can to empower the executive branch at the expense of the legislative one,” the Wisconsin Republican told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “His Supreme Court nominees have all contributed to that, those that he has placed on the bench already. So not only does Congress have the authority to stop a nominee, it has an obligation to defend itself against a president and a radically altered court that would continue to seize its powers.”
(Ryan also tacked slightly away from the party line in predicting that, if the partisan power structure were reversed, he’d be pressing the case that a president with a full year left in office is entitled to a confirmation vote, and Senate Democrats would be resisting just as emphatically as the GOP is now. “I think everyone is going to make spin that benefits their side,” he said. “I think it’s pretty obvious.”)
And at the House Judiciary Committee, both the incumbent and previous chairmen have endorsed the McConnell approach as good for democracy.
Making the court’s ideological balance central to the presidential campaign “is far better than letting a lame-duck president make a nomination that is going to clearly tilt the court,” the current holder of the gavel, Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia, has said in a series of cable news interviews.
“Now everybody realizes the race is not just about one branch; it’s about two branches of government,” his predecessor, Republican Lamar Smith of Texas, told a group of college students in his district last week.
The House GOP has not been speaking with one voice, though. Some members in tight fights for re-election in swing districts, or seeking promotion to the Senate in purple states, have urged Senate Republicans to at least go through the motions of considering Obama’s pick even if they spurn the nominee in the end.
“I don’t think there should be any block,” John Katko, a freshman in a toss-up race in upstate New York, told local media. “But, it may be an exercise in futility unless it’s someone that’s appealing to everyone.”
David Jolly, who’s running for the open Senate seat in Florida, predicted the president would render the debate moot by not picking “a candidate that meets the approval of the Republican Senate.”
The leading House Democrat for that same seat, Patrick Murphy, has synthesized his party’s altogether unified message on the topic: McConnell’s tactic “is a complete – and disgraceful – abdication of his constitutional responsibility,” he said in an email to supporters.
“It’s a shame they’re just saying they don’t intend to honor their responsibilities,” Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said when pressed by reporters in San Francisco, while the ranking Democrat on Judiciary, John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, tweeted that the “Senate must fulfill its duty to confirm a nominee swiftly.”
“Your vote is your voice” will again be one of the standard rallying cries for boosting turnout this fall. “Your voice is your vote” is going to be as good as it gets for House members on Topic A this year.
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