Robert Gehrke: In the age of a broken Congress, hypocrisy is the name of the game

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Utahns who had pinned their hopes on Sen. Mitt Romney to delay the filling of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court were disappointed this week when he said he would support a quick vote.

And that’s fine to be disappointed. But don’t be surprised.

Romney is a Republican and a pretty conservative one. He has, since being elected, bucked President Donald Trump, but he has not bucked the Republican Party. And even then he votes with Trump more often than Utah’s other senator, Mike Lee.

By the same token, Romney had a logical path to support the confirmation of Ginsburg’s replacement in an election year. He wasn’t there four years ago when Senate Republicans refused to consider President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland in an election year, so he can make an intellectually honest argument they should proceed.

The same cannot be said for Sen. Mike Lee, although intellectual dishonesty won’t stop him.

Lee was at the vanguard of the Republican coup that blocked Garland’s consideration and manufactured a supposed precedent of not confirming justices in an election year.

“We think the American people need a chance to weigh in on this issue of who will fill that seat,” Lee said in an interview before Garland’s nomination was announced. “They will have that chance in November.”

It was about the principle, not the person, Lee argued. It was about neither. It was really about power.

If the Senate had at least held a hearing on Garland’s nomination and then voted him down, fine. Go ahead and vote for Trump’s nominee and confirm her. Republicans have the votes. But because Garland certainly would have been confirmed on his merits, Lee and many of his colleagues refused to even meet with the nominee, saying it would be a “waste of the Senate’s time.”

And if there’s one thing senators know, it’s being a waste of time.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham was categorical about what it meant to block Garland in 2016: “I want you to use my words against me: If there’s a Republican president in 2016 and a vacancy occurs in the last year of the first term, you can say Lindsey Graham said let’s let the next president, whoever it might be, make that nomination.”

“We are setting a precedent here,” Graham said.

Now, it’s not a precedent. Graham claims that because Democrats treated Brett Kavanaugh so badly during his confirmation that it justifies a new set of rules.

And Lee is now arguing that this time is different because Republicans hold the Senate and the White House, so now the people don’t need to speak — even if the vote comes after Republicans lose both in less than six weeks.

That’s what this is really about. A party that has largely been unable to pass any meaningful legislation needs a new weapon and hopes for the same kind of judicial activism Republicans have complained about for years.

Tipping the balance of the court by two justices matters to Utahns. It will jeopardize health coverage for tens of thousands of people (thank Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, in part, for that); voting will become more difficult; immigrants and refugees will be targeted; LGBTQ citizens may lose legal protections.

In short, decades of hard-fought progress which majorities of Americans support will be wiped away — exactly as Lee has dreamed about.

So Republicans win. Right? Maybe for now.

But in doing so they have contributed to a climate where power is all that matters. Collegiality, integrity and respect for the institution is gone and we’re left with craven hypocrisy and win-at-all-costs toxicity that has been inflamed over the years by both parties.

And rest assured this Republican retaliation will be met with retaliation in the future. Democrats are already talking about adding justices to the court or limiting the cases the court can hear.

In doing so, we risk infecting the last branch of government the public respects with the same polarization that has turned the Senate into a pitiful dysfunctional joke.