Can Split Government Work?
There is a Democratic president in office with Republican controlled House and Senate. Can they work together to make government function well? The right-wing’s hostility to President Obama has interfered with government operations since his inauguration. It appears to have only worsened with time. Instead of putting country over party, conservative Republicans have played to their base, trying to make life difficult for the president and not allow him any victories.
The Senate’s refusal to confirm Obama’s candidate to replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, Merrick Garland, a centrist judge with impeccable credentials, is another example of Republican partisanship, ignoring past precedent. The Republican action is pure politics. No other nominee for the Supreme Court has ever been rejected in a president’s last year in office, but the Republican right-wing is unmoved and wants to wait to choose a candidate when Obama is out of office. GOP Senators are afraid that Garland would tip the Court to the left, when Scalia had been strongly conservative, as had the Court itself been for decades.
With the Court now split between four conservatives and four liberals, four to four rulings are coming from the Court and will continue, resulting in judicial paralysis. Though a majority of Americans want the Senate to vote on Garland up or down for the Court, the Republicans are turning a deaf ear to this desire. The rulings made by Federal Courts of Appeal will often stand as law, until a ninth Supreme Court Justice is finally confirmed by the Senate whose Republican members do not care about the judicial gridlock.
As bad as the rejection of Garland by Republicans has been their obstructionism in filling federal court appointments recommended by Obama, causing difficulties in the courts’ ability to function, with heavy caseloads for justices and long delays in handling cases. As of February 2016, eleven federal district court nominees were awaiting votes by the full Senate and twenty-five judicial appointments had not yet passed the Judicial Committee. The battle between Obama and the Republican Senators over federal court nominations at the appeals court level was ongoing even before Scalia’s death opened up the Supreme Court seat.
With the GOP regaining control of the Senate in January 2015, Republican Senators blocked Obama’s attempt to fill vacancies on regional federal courts of appeal. The senators refused to approve of candidates for judgeships in their states ahead of formal nomination, the process that had previously been in place and almost automatic. Right-wing conservative groups and commentators had pressured senators not to allow Obama to make any more appointments to the upper ranks of the judiciary, as these judges often are the final arbiters in cases that the Supreme Court does not review.
There are also one hundred and forty three nominees for non-judicial federal jobs awaiting confirmations by the Senate, with the Republicans using their majority to delay the installation of Obama’s choices. Some of these are important bureaucratic jobs that deal with national security and terrorism. Included was Secretary of the Army for which Eric Fanning was nominated in September 2015 and finally confirmed in May 2016. Numerous ambassadorial appointments remain in limbo as well for partisan reasons, some of them to large nations with which relations with the United States had been problematic. And some GOP members of Congress want to impeach the head of the IRS over issues that were present before his appointment, claiming that he lied to them in testimony.
The fact that the federal court system is backlogged and not functioning well has not seemed to move highly partisan Republican senators to act. The fact that a number of the federal government’s agencies are not operating optimally also has had no effect on the GOP. More important to them is making Obama and the federal government look bad to Americans. Politics is more of an impetus to Republicans than having the government work.
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