Utah's Sen. Orrin Hatch, perhaps emboldened by his successful defeat of a primary challenge last year and the political luxury of beginning a new six-year term, did the right thing Tuesday. He joined others in the Republican leadership to end a foolish filibuster against the highly qualified person President Obama had named to run a new consumer protection agency.
Of course, Hatch did so while looking at the business end of the so-called nuclear option. That was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's threat to change Senate rules and remove the option of filibustering presidential appointments.
Hatch, old Senate hand that he is, can be quite fond of the filibuster. He rightly noted that the Democrats, when in the minority, have been known to use that delaying tactic against some appointments made by Republican presidents.
But Hatch protested a bit too much when he railed against Reid for his threat to end the practice as a tool to permanently block perfectly qualified presidential appointments out of mere pique. Which was exactly what Republicans, Hatch included, had been doing to the nomination of former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray to be the head of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
For more than a year and a half, Hatch, his Utah colleague Sen. Mike Lee and other Republicans refused to assent to Cordray's nomination. The roadblock was erected even though no one had a word to say against the candidate and a good many Republicans, including then-Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, vouched for his qualifications.
The fight was over the very existence of the CFPB. Republicans claimed to be objecting to the fact that the agency was independent of Congress, beholden instead to the Federal Reserve. Democrats countered, convincingly, that the real fear was of a federal agency empowered to check the abuses of monied interests and stand instead with the consumer.
Either way, Hatch was making a constitutionally dodgy argument when he claimed that such frequent and interminable uses of the filibuster, especially when nobody actually has to stand up and talk, is an old and honorable practice of the Senate. It is not. It does not appear in the Constitution and stands very much against the notion of a constitutional government in which it matters who won the last election.
Tuesday, faced with the loss of that tool in the future, Hatch joined other Republicans in defusing the nuclear option, voting not only to end the filibuster but also to approve the Cordray nomination. Lee, sadly, did neither.
And Hatch reserves the right to engage in similar exercises in obstructionism in the future.
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