It’s hard to imagine a political problem more troubling than the partisan and ideological gridlock that grips the American government these days. As the recent shutdown crisis in Washington makes all too clear, Americans are a profoundly divided lot. We have strong opinions on important issues and love to hear ourselves talk – even if we’re not so good at listening.
Here’s something, however, that might even be worse: secret gridlock. This is what happens when our elected officials not only can’t or won’t get things done but refuse, like Soviet-style Politburo bureaucrats, even to publicly disclose or admit their positions on important issues.
Those seeking a classic and current example need to look no further than the ongoing refusal of North Carolina’s senior U.S. senator, Richard Burr, to allow Raleigh-based federal prosecutor Jennifer May-Parker to have the Senate hearing to which she is entitled after having been nominated by President Obama to serve as federal District Court judge in North Carolina’s Eastern District.
May-Parker was nominated by the president more than four months ago to fill a court seat vacant for more than eight years! It’s the longest-standing vacancy in the American federal court system and a huge problem for the residents of the 44 counties in Eastern North Carolina who face long court backlogs. Federal court administrators officially classify the Eastern District situation as a “judicial emergency.”
What’s more, May-Parker is the first person of color and only the second woman ever to be nominated to serve on the bench in the Eastern District.
Unfortunately, since the date of May-Parker’s nomination, nothing has happened. While numerous other court nominees submitted after her have had their hearings and been sped along to full Senate confirmation, the May-Parker nomination remains buried.
The reason: Sen. Richard Burr.
Under the bizarre rules of the Senate, home-state senators of prospective court nominees must sign off by returning what’s known as a “blue slip” before the Judiciary Committee can hold a hearing. Burr refuses to do this.
It would be one thing if Burr would stand up, own his position and explain and debate it, but such honesty has not been forthcoming. Sadly, in keeping with the silent brand of “blackballing” that so often afflicted efforts to break discrimination barriers in decades gone by, Burr has refused even to admit his opposition or engage with those advancing May-Parker’s nomination. The only reason the public even knows of his opposition is confirmation provided by the Senate Judiciary Committee staff.
What’s perhaps saddest and most ironic, however, is that such Ted Cruz-like obstructionism has not normally been Burr’s style.
Though extremely conservative, Burr recently won deserved praise for his unwillingness to go along with the far right’s plan to shut down the federal government and risk default on the national debt in an effort to derail the Affordable Care Act. Burr rightfully called the Cruz plan “the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.”
And in 2005, he had this to say about a previous effort to block a federal court nominee submitted by President Bush: “I believe if one of my colleagues objects to a particular nominee, it is certainly appropriate and fair for my colleague to vote against that nominee on the floor of the Senate. But denying judicial nominees of both parties, who seek to serve their country, an up-or-down vote, simply is not fair. It was certainly not the intention of our Founding Fathers when they designed and created this very institution.”
While Burr was right in 2005 and right to denounce Cruz and his supporters in 2013, he is dead wrong in his silent filibuster of the May-Parker nomination.
Let’s hope that public pressure forces the senator to speak up and, at the very least, explain his actions. Dysfunctional as Congress often is, there is at least a chance for intelligent governance when there is open discussion and debate. When our elected officials resort to the brand of secret, behind-closed-doors obstructionism Burr is practicing, representative government itself is endangered.
Rob Schofield is director of Research and Policy Development at NC Policy Watch.