This week saw two notable milestones — one unforgettable, the other thoroughly lamentable.
Wednesday marked the 47th anniversary of an extraordinary achievement. With millions of people watching grainy images on live television, astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped off the lunar landing module and became the first human to walk on the moon, chiseling the date July 20, 1969 into the history books.
History of another kind was made on July 20, 2016 — a new record for political intransigence.
Wednesday was the 126th day since President Barack Obama nominated Judge Merrick Garland to fill a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court. More than four months have passed, and the Republican-controlled Senate has yet to vote on the nomination or even schedule a confirmation hearing. Some senators refuse to meet with Garland, the chief judge of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Never in the 225-year history of the republic has the Senate neglected for so long its constitutional duty to advise and consent on a Supreme Court appointment.
As a century-old record for inaction fell, senators were embarking on a seven-week recess.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says Garland won’t get a vote or a hearing after the Senate returns from its summer vacation.
If McConnell keeps his word, it will be the first time that the Senate has ever refused to consider a Supreme Court nominee. That would be a dangerous precedent.
As the president wrote this week in the Wall Street Journal: “This is much more serious than your typical case of Washington dysfunction. And if we allow it to continue, the consequences of congressional inaction could weaken our most important institutions, erode public trust and undermine our democracy.”
The Senate’s abdication of its responsibility already is the source of needless uncertainty. The court has deadlocked four times since Justice Antonin Scalia died in February, leaving unresolved sensitive questions about labor, immigration, health insurance and banking.
The court will still be short one justice when it reconvenes in October, and it’s likely to remain that way for most of the next term, raising the specter of more unresolved legal issues. The remaining justices have declined to consider several cases involving issues that appear to be ripe for Supreme Court review, probably recognizing the wasted time and expense of litigating cases that are likely to end in a 4-4 stalemate.
McConnell disingenuously insists it would be inappropriate for senators to vote on a Supreme Court nomination during the final year of Obama’s term.
Obama, like all presidents, was elected for four years, not three. And there is no precedent for refusing to consider a Supreme Court nominee in an election year. Justice Anthony Kennedy was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in November 1987 and confirmed three months later by a Democratic-controlled Senate. He is one of numerous examples of election-year confirmations.
Obama, in his commentary, urged not only a vote on Garland but a commitment from senators in both parties to guarantee a hearing and a vote on all Supreme Court nominees within a fixed period of time. The idea originated with President George W. Bush.
It’s an idea worthy of a bipartisan compromise. Now that would be a milestone to celebrate.