Republicans in the U.S. Senate made history this week when they successfully filibustered the nomination of Rep. Melvin Watt (R-N.C.) to become director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency. Watt received 56 Senate votes, four short of the 60 necessary to end the filibuster.
The move represented the latest round of raw, extremist obstructionism that Republicans have proudly practiced for the last five years, particularly when it comes to mounting extraordinary efforts to block presidential appointments that in the past were considered to be routine.
The historic element of the Watt rejection was that throughout American history it has been virtually unheard for a sitting member of Congress to be filibustered -- to be denied the courtesy of a final vote -- when selected by the president to fill an administration position. Prior to this week's partisan blockade of Watt, a Congressional rejection like his hadn't happened since before the Civil War, in 1843.
That important historical context should have been included in every story about the Watt filibuster, but it wasn't. That's not surprising considering the Beltway press corps seems to have made a conscious decision during the Obama presidency to omit virtually all context with regards to the Republicans' continued radical behavior as they cling to filibusters to methodically block, stall and reject most White House policy proposals, as well as countless nominations.
The pliant coverage over the years has likely only enabled Republicans to push ahead with their corrosive strategy, knowing there's certainly no downside with regards to adverse media attention. After all, Republican moved to recently shut down the government, yet lots of journalists suggested the radical, destructive move was because “both sides” just couldn't agree, essentially blaming Democrats for Republican extremism.
Note that Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) recently announced he was going to block all Obama nominations until he got more answers about the 2012 terror attack in Benghazi. Although as CNN's Jeffrey Toobin noted, Republicans block Obama picks as a matter of general principle, so it's not like Graham even needs a stated reason for the obstruction.
Watt wasn't the only presidential pick rejected by Republicans on October 31. They also blocked Patricia Millett, who was nominated to fill one of three vacancies on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Despite the fact Millett had previously served as an assistant solicitor general, and represented the administration before the Supreme Court 32 times, under both Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Republicans denied her the right to an up or down vote.
It's telling that Republicans barely even bother to give reasons for the filibusters any more, and that the press doesn't find that odd.
Republicans claim Watt is too "partisan" and not "qualified"; vague allegations that can be leveled against virtually any presidential pick. As for Millett, Republicans didn't even pretend to care about her judicial record. They simply want to make sure the vacancy on the D.C. Court of Appeals she was picked to fill remains permanently empty, so that the court will remain split evenly between Democratic and Republican appointed “active” judges, while the balance of senior judges -- who still hear cases -- remains overwhelmingly Republican.
The Millett and Watt votes were remarkable in many ways, although they didn't generate much coverage, especially not on television. None of the network newscasts mentioned the votes last night, and Watt and Millett have received just a handful of cable news mentions, according to Nexis.
Of the filibuster coverage that does exist, the tell-tale shortcomings that have defined the media's work on GOP obstructionism are on display. For instance, the Associated Press categorized the filibusters as “a setback for the president,” which is precisely how Republicans want the story to be portrayed: They embrace extremist tactics, reject the president's picks, and the press chalks it up as a White House failure, or “setback.” (If you're a Republican, why stop?)
The Washington Post pointed to the filibusters as examples of “partisan rancor,” suggesting Democrats were partially, or equally, to blame.
Meanwhile, the New York Times reported that while judicial nominations remain an issue of deep contention, “Among senators of both parties, there is agreement that a president should be granted deference in picking members of his cabinet and top executive branch positions.”
But that just completely ignores recent history. Last November Republicans launched an unprecedented, preemptive smear campaign to make sure Susan Rice was not picked as Obama's next Secretary of State. (It succeeded.) Then they engineered an unprecedented campaign to try to stop Republican Chuck Hagel from becoming Secretary of Defense. (It failed.)
And as late as July, two of Obama's nominated cabinet picks still hadn't received votes in the Senate, thanks to determined obstruction.
Note to the Times: Republicans now absolutely do reject the idea that “presidents should be granted deference in picking members of his cabinet.” If the president is a Democrat.
Acknowledging that simple fact is an important first step towards accurately reporting the story of GOP obstructionism.