Editorial: Political paralysis

How can the federal government function properly when politics takes precedence over sound policy?

Lawrence Journal-World opinion section

It’s sad to see Merrick Garland, a respected judge and highly qualified nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, caught in the political morass that is paralyzing Washington, D.C.

Politics never is far from the minds of our elected federal officials, but voters expect those officials to rise above partisan interests when needed to ensure the smooth operation of government. Unfortunately, in this contentious election year, political calculations are taking precedence over sound decision-making.

Even before Garland was nominated, Senate President Mitch McConnell vowed that the Senate wouldn’t consider the nomination of anyone named to replace Justice Antonin Scalia. Many senators, including Kansas Sens. Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran, support the decision to block any Supreme Court nomination in the final year of President Obama’s term. Interestingly, Roberts was one of 76 senators who voted in favor of Garland’s appointment to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 1997.

But, sometimes, things change quickly. Less than a week before Obama announced his choice of Garland, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, suggested Obama “could easily name Merrick Garland, who is a fine man. He probably won’t do that because his appointment is about the election.”

At this point, it’s clear that political calculations are far more important than Garland’s qualifications for the job. Obama undoubtedly weighed the political ramifications of his appointment and, in some ways, could be using Garland as a political sacrificial lamb. The Senate’s handling of the nomination almost certainly will be guided by what Senate leaders think will help senators seeking election more: acting on the nomination or simply ignoring it.

Senators who want to block the nomination say that duty should go to the next president, but data compiled by news agencies show that, since 1900, the Senate has voted on eight Supreme Court nominees during an election year and confirmed six of those. There also appears to be plenty of time to decide this issue before the end of Obama’s term. Obama has almost 10 months left in his term, and the Senate has never taken more than 125 days to vote on a nomination. The average duration between appointment and the confirmation, rejection or withdrawal of a candidate is 25 days.

What kind of precedent would be set by the Senate refusing to consider Garland’s nomination? Obama had 342 days remaining in his term when Justice Scalia died. If that’s too short a time, what is the limit? A year? Two years? How long should politics keep a seat on the Supreme Court empty?

Republicans are pointing to the “Biden rule” which harkens back to remarks Vice President Joe Biden made in 1992 arguing against considering any Supreme Court nominations at the end of President George Bush’s term. There were no vacancies on the court or nominations to consider at that point, but maybe Democrats would have followed the same course as Republicans now are taking. Democrats did employ hard-ball tactics in rejecting the appointment of Robert Bork to the court in 1987.

Is this just a high-stakes game of tit for tat? If so, how can the nation break that cycle? Garland is a nominee who, in all likelihood, would have been easily confirmed in a more statesman-like time. Americans need look no further than the current presidential election to see voters’ dissatisfaction with a federal government that puts political agendas ahead of the nation’s welfare. It’s little wonder they are looking for a change.