The transition from the 44th to the 45th president of the United States passed quietly last week. We noticed no rioters in the streets or other unpleasantness that often accompanies these sudden exchanges of power. Yet, an announcement Monday from Shelby is giving us doubts.
The outgoing Obama administration put up only mild resistance to Shelby’s audacious power grab last week. Calling Shelby’s senatorial holds on 70 Obama nominees “silliness,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs added, “It boggles the mind to hold up qualified nominees for positions that are needed to perform functions in a government because you didn’t get two earmarks.”
Holding up nominees was the least of “President” Shelby’s actions. With his blocking maneuver last week, he had effectively taken control of the government, skipping the tedious presidential election process in favor of just putting his foot on the brakes of government.
For his part, Shelby is keeping a low profile, opting to let his spokesman do the speaking.
Shelby’s primary concerns appear to focus on his native Alabama, namely securing an Air Force contract for Mobile and more money for a Huntsville facility where the FBI can study explosives. (Both are projects worthy of consideration, but not worthy of halting government.)
That was all we’d heard from Shelby, until Monday when his office announced it was relenting on some of the 70 holds. Not all, mind you, but some. It seems the presidency for Shelby is an on-again, off-again affair.
How would “President” Shelby address our economic problems? How would he untangle the nation from two wars? What would he do to tighten our defenses against terrorists?
Answers to these questions must wait, presumably until Air Force refueling tankers are rolling off the line in Mobile and the FBI’s Huntsville facility has all the cash it wants.
The sole outstanding problem is Shelby’s insistence on retaining the title of senator while using the arcane rules of the Senate to serve as de-facto president. And regardless of whether he is holding up 70 nominations or merely a handful that is what Shelby is doing.
The Constitution is pretty strict about not allowing an officeholder to serve in two federal offices. Yet any politician who can presume to lock down the nominating functions of one president until a few pet projects come to his constituents can surely pull off this dual-office feat.
If the Shelby administration is looking for something out of the box, policy-wise, we suggest congressional reform. Specifically, the Senate rules that grant a minority party overwhelming power, enough to act as roadblock to meaningful legislation.
“President” Shelby knows and understands this process. As a senator, he’s used it to serve the interests of his political party and his state. With the Republican Party currently in the minority in the Senate, Shelby and his GOP colleagues established a 60-vote benchmark for passing major legislation, a standard that can’t be found in the Constitution.
Shelby’s tenure in the Senate has stretched from 1987 until the present, as well as membership at one time of both major political parties. He changed from Democrat to Republican in 1994, when the Republicans claimed the Senate majority. He’s seen both parties use these arcane rules to deliver pork to the folks back home.
Shelby has witnessed how the minority party can unnecessarily slow down the government. How it can secretly stall judicial appointments when a president of the other party is doing the appointing. During the George W. Bush administration, Shelby’s party was frustrated as a handful of political opponents gummed up the works. Of course, with the shoe on the other foot, he and his party have gleefully repaid in kind.
The vicious cycle must end.
Shelby is just the man to change it. With great credibility, he can lead the congressional reform choir as it sings, “I was blind, but now I see.” He can demand a simple thing: That legislation receives a simple up-or-down vote so that major topics like health care, climate change and the budget can be acted on without months of delay.
Until then, “President” Richard Shelby will enjoy no more success at passing an agenda than President Barack Obama has.