Americans owe a debt of gratitude to Richard Shelby, the senior Republican senator from Alabama, and the rest of the Senate should be furious at him.
The reason is simple. Shelby has overstepped the usual bounds of caution and produced an act of senatorial arrogance so breathtaking that the country just might notice. And if the country actually knew that such shenanigans were possible, the country would be amazed and, one would hope, perturbed.
Shelby has placed a blanket “hold” on 70 nominations pending before the Senate, nominations for federal agency jobs and seats on the federal bench. Does he have a case against each and every one of the 70? No, he isn’t really talking about any of them.
His problem has to do with a couple of government contracts he wants to see benefit his home state of Alabama. To date, these Shelby “earmarks” have not come to pass, and the senator wants to change that. He is tired of being stiffed. He wants to force the Senate and the Obama administration to cede to his preferences for the granting of these contracts.
The tactic works by inducing pain. It slows or disrupts the work of literally dozens of federal agencies and courts. It interferes with the normal execution of the functions we all pay taxes to support. But this is not the goal; it is merely pressure, a means to an end.
Placing a hold on a bill or appointment has another purpose. It gives any senator leverage over the White House and the rest of the Senate.
The holding senator may have an issue pertaining to the nominee or the bill at hand. Or there may be something else on the senator’s mind.
In this case, Shelby’s communications director tells us, the issue is the coddling of terrorists. The Obama administration has not yet granted a certain contract for the building of tanker planes to refuel U.S. warplanes in midflight. And the Obama administration has not let a contract for a lab that will analyze forensic evidence from bomb-making materials found in Iraq and Afghanistan. The communication from the senator’s office suggests this shows a lack of commitment to anti-terrorism.
It neglects to mention that both these contracts involve, or might involve, large business interests in the state of Alabama.
This is what some call constituent service. Others call it earmarking, the practice of steering specific outlays in spending bills to benefit preselected parties. Still others call this plain and simple pork barrel politics, the pursuit of government largesse benefiting one’s friends and constituents and campaign supporters.
A blanket hold on 70 nominees becomes embarrassing to senators such as John McCain, senior Republican from Arizona, who ran for president twice emphasizing his detestation of earmarks. Now McCain, and others like him, find themselves called upon to defend the Shelby-style brandishing of the hold-filibuster to protect earmarking.
But Democrats need to look in the mirror. One big reason the majority party has not been able to act like one in the Senate is its unwillingness to tackle the customs and traditions that make every senator a king or queen. Every senator has an interest in preserving that kind of individual power.
If one senator can hold sway over so much of the nation’s business simply by declaring himself willing to be unreasonable, then reasonable people have cause to re-examine the institution of the Senate itself.
From The Caucus at The New York Times:
The move may temper a threat by Democratic leaders in the Senate — and even the White House — that the administration would make recess appointments during next week’s Presidents’ Day break, bucking any notion of senators’ approval.
At one point, Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, deemed the senator’s actions the “poster child” for how badly Washington works.
Mr. Gibbs labeled the move yet another version of the corrupt nature of lawmakers’ earmarks for pet projects.
Basically, here’s the gist. Northrop Grumman and its partner, European Aeronautical Defense and Space, want the contract for the refueling tanker. It would add about 1,500 jobs in Mobile, Ala. This contract has been a protracted fight that involves Northrop’s competition, Boeing. Alabama Republicans, including Senator Shelby’s colleague, Senator Jeff Sessions, want a revisit of the draft bid package.
In addition, Senator Shelby is adamant that funds — scheduled for appropriation earlier — should be released for an anti-terrorism center in Alabama.
But Senator Shelby still has holds on on these individuals: Terry Yonkers, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force; Frank Kendall, Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics; and Erin Conaton, Under Secretary of the Air Force.
His colleague, Senator Sessions, also a Republican, has placed holds on Mr. Kendall and Ms. Conaton.
According to THE CENTER FOR PUBLIC INTEGRITY:
The fourth-term Senator has received at least $108,233 in PAC contributions to his political campaigns and leadership PAC from Northrop Grumman’s corporate PACs. This includes contributions, dating back to his first Senate election in 1986, from the company’s political action committee and from the PACs of companies that are now part of Northrop Grumman.
According to the Center analysis, this level of support ranks Northrop Grumman as the seventh most generous institutional supporter over the course of Shelby’s political career.