It’s no secret that Americans don’t think much of Congress.
In a March poll conducted by Gallup, just 24 percent of respondents said they approved of the job that the House and Senate are doing. And in a testament to federal lawmakers’ collective unpopularity, that 24 percent figure was actually one of the highest approval ratings they’ve received in recent years.
We’d submit that the Senate’s recent handling of the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court is a perfect example of why our legislators are held in such low esteem.
The nakedly partisan nomination battle began last year, when conservative Justice Antonin Scalia died at age 79.
It was only about an hour after the announcement of Scalia’s death that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, proclaimed that Republicans would refuse to consider anyone Democratic President Barack Obama nominated for the open seat. McConnell said it was too close to the election, although Obama still had 10 and a half months (or almost 22 percent of his term) left in office.
Then-President Obama nominated federal appeals court judge Merrick Garland for the SCOTUS vacancy, but, true to his word, McConnell refused to even grant Garland a hearing.
We can’t offer a particularly educated opinion on how Garland would have panned out as a justice, but we can say he appeared well-qualified for the job. And we’d argue that the Constitution generally gives the president the power to pick whom he wants for the Supreme Court.
The Senate’s Republican leadership — a group that includes our own Sen. John Barrasso — was wrong to refuse to consider any Obama nominee and it was an abuse of the Senate’s power to “advise and consent.”
As an aside, we’d add that ignoring Garland’s nomination was also politically foolish. We wonder how liberal of a justice the GOP might have ended up with if, as the pundits and mainstream politicos had predicted, Hillary Clinton had won the election in November.
In any event, November came and went and Republican Donald Trump unexpectedly took the White House.
A couple weeks after taking office, President Trump nominated Neil Gorsuch to fill Scalia’s post on the high court. Much like Garland, Gorsuch was a federal appellate court judge and appeared well-qualified for the job, commanding respect on both sides of the political aisle.
One difference we appreciate is that Gorsuch comes from the West. He’s the son of a Casper native and sat on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, which hears appeals from and sets legal precedent for Wyoming. We see value in having someone on the court who understands this part of the country and Wyomingites (or, as Justice Scalia insisted on calling us, “Wyomans”).
In spite of Gorsuch’s credentials, the nomination process went about as it did for the similarly qualified Garland last year: It devolved into a shameless display of partisanship.
Senate Democrats, still seething from Garland’s snubbing, sought to frame Gorsuch as a radical right-winger and generally opposed him as a block. (Three Democratic senators crossed the aisle, though that’s likely because they will soon be facing elections in their Trump-leaning home states.)
Meanwhile, to plow through the roadblock set up by Democrats, Republicans altered the Senate’s rules so they could confirm Gorsuch’s nomination with a simple 54-45 majority (rather than the normally required 60 votes). And it should be noted that the so-called “nuclear option” was a trick used by former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, to help Obama nominees get into various positions in 2013.
In short, Senate Republicans and Democrats continued their pattern of doing things that, when the roles are reversed, they decry as being gross distortions of the political process.
To be sure, the stakes were high for the open Supreme Court seat; Gorsuch’s confirmation will likely restore the conservatives’ edge on the nine-member panel.
However, we still wish there could have been more statesmanship and less gamesmanship in the confirmation process.
This may be hopelessly naive, but it seems to us that members of Congress should feel some obligation to play by the rules, rather than constantly searching for any opportunity or excuse to break them.
Until then, consider us among the majority of Americans who disapprove of the job they’re doing.