After his re-election last month, Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley returned to Washington last week for to finish out a brief lame-duck session with some of his close allies defeated, the Democratic majority vanishing and minimal prospects of major legislation before or after Republicans take over the Senate.
Naturally, he wants to stay in Washington longer.
Merkley must have all his Christmas shopping done, because he’s trying to persuade the Senate leadership to stay in session deep into December, almost until senators finally departing Washington might be crossing flight patterns with Santa.
It’s not because he’s become suddenly optimistic about legislation that hasn’t moved in the last two years. It’s about the one thing that a waning Democratic Senate majority can still do – confirm Obama judicial and executive nominees, many of whom have been held up in the Senate since, oh, Valentine’s Day.
“I argued in caucus that we should stay until the week after next,” reported Merkley on the phone Thursday. “I said these people put their lives on hold for a year, they’ve gone through a vetting like a full-body colonoscopy, and they deserve a vote.”
At that point, he said, the caucus burst into applause.
Which may not be the same as wanting to be in Washington deep into December.
Since the election, the Senate has confirmed 16 federal judges, at a time when many judicial districts were understaffed to the point of affecting their functioning. It has also confirmed 38 executive appointments, many of them hanging for a long time, many of them ambassadors to countries where you’d think the United States would really want to have an ambassador.
The reason this could all happen, Merkley points out, was “a direct result of the rules change.” After years of watching even low-level Obama appointments filibustered, requiring a supermajority of 60 votes for confirmation, the Senate last November adopted a rules change that Merkley had actively urged, allowing simple majority confirmation for presidential appointments short of the Supreme Court. Republicans called it the “nuclear option” and warned it would destroy the Senate, but recently announced that when they take over in January, they won’t change it back.
In fact, there’s some talk of the new Republican majority eliminating the filibuster entirely.
So Senate Democrats can spend as much of December as they feel like confirming appointments, certifying long-waiting judges and ambassadors, as well as avoiding a filibuster to make sure the United States has a duly confirmed chief financial officer for the Department of Agriculture. They’re taking care of business, and it’s not like the time might otherwise go to producing legislation.
It does seem that in the next few days Congress will produce a spending bill to keep the government from shutting down next week, although the House Republican leadership will apparently need Democratic votes to pass it. One way or another, Congress will likely extend a large range of tax breaks, which Merkley points out is less impressive when you consider they’re only being extended until the end of 2014 – or three weeks from now, after which Congress gets to start all over.
“This is a huge sign of dysfunction,” he points out, “that we’re still setting tax policy for calendar year 2014.”
Looking past New Year’s, Merkley has other concerns about the Senate where he’ll be starting his second term. Considerably, it has to do with senators who won’t be there, Democrats who came in with him in what he calls the Class of 2008 and were defeated last month – Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mark Udall of Colorado and Mark Begich of Alaska.
All of them, Merkley points out, had massive independent expenditure campaigns levelled against them, considerably affecting the outcome. In 2012, he notes, there was substantial SuperPAC spending on Senate races, but their targets largely survived, and observers concluded that the new political money situation would not in fact remodel American politics.
“Now the message is the opposite,” said Merkley about the 2014 results. “Now they have control of the Senate.”
He says he already sees the impact in the debate over the tax extenders. While Republicans insist that tax breaks for low-income people need to be “paid for” – matched with spending cuts to balance revenue loss – tax breaks at the other end of the income scale seem not to have that requirement.
For Democratic senators, tempted to stay in Washington to keep confirming Obama nominees, Christmas may arrive a little late.
For folks looking for upper-income tax breaks, Christmas may have arrived early.
Note: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 12/7/14.