Dereliction of duty on Capitol Hill

Mitch McConnell vows to not even consider any Obama nominee for the Supreme Court.
Mitch McConnell vows to not even consider any Obama nominee for the Supreme Court. AP

Remember when Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, vowed to demonstrate that his party could actually govern rather than merely obstruct? Apparently, neither does Sen. McConnell.

Hyper-partisanship has been the rule in Washington ever since Barack Obama assumed the presidency in 2009. Partisan gridlock has produced two government shutdowns and has often led to paralysis in dealing with vital national issues like fixing Medicare and other government programs. The Republican refusal to work with the other party in the traditional give-and-take of politics began with the Affordable Care Act and extended to virtually every other important domestic and foreign policy issue.

But Sen. McConnell and his party have now taken partisanship to unprecedented levels, at least in modern times. It is almost as if they have decided to rewrite the Constitution to limit a president’s tenure in a second term to three years instead of four, to the point of irresponsibility.

▪ The latest example is the refusal to consider the president’s plan to close the terrorist detention facility at Guantánamo. In a way, this is the most egregious display of partisanship so far — Congress itself asked the president for a plan. Lawmakers wrote a provision into the National Defense Authorization Act setting Feb. 23 deadline for the president to act. Mr. Obama fulfilled his duty last week, but Republican leaders on the Hill declared the plan DOA immediately. If they didn’t intend to consider it, why ask for it?

▪ The refusal to even consider a nominee to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court — any nominee — is unprecedented, no matter how you spin it. The president has nearly a year left in his tenure. He’s no lame duck. And we’re not buying the “let the people decide” line. The Constitution assigns the duty to nominate a justice to the president, and it vests the Senate with the duty to give advice and consent. That is how the system works — or rather, how the system was supposed to work before Sen. McConnell and his colleagues decided otherwise. They won’t even offer the eventual nominee the traditional courtesy meeting.

▪ Republican leaders said they would refuse to meet with President Obama’s budget director to discuss the annual budget, even before he presented it. Democrats called it an unprecedented snub, which it is. There’s nothing new in a president’s budget being DOA on Capitol Hill, but refusing to meet with the budget director is an extreme break with traditional convention.

Other examples abound. Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, head of the Senate Banking Committee, has refused to hold any hearings on nominees for posts at the Federal Reserve and Export-Import Bank. Like the Senate’s refusal to consider a Scalia replacement, this represents a total dereliction of the Senate’s advise-and-consent powers.

Republicans legislators have a duty to oppose the president — up to a point. But this is going too far. It’s impossible to make an honest case for rejecting a nominee who hasn’t been named, or refusing to consider a prison closing plan they asked for — even before looking at it.

The damage is not to the president, but to the nation. The Supreme Court suffers lasting harm when justices are seen as beneficiaries of political patronage. And Congress suffers even more harm to its tarnished reputation when lawmakers don’t even bother to hide their extreme partisanship and contempt.