The Wrong Profile

In 1957, then-senator John F. Kennedy published Profiles in Courage, a book describing acts of political integrity by eight U.S. senators through history. Nearly 60 years later, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Senate Republican leaders are starring in a sequel that could only be called Profiles in Cynicism. Rather than work to fill the Supreme Court vacancy created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, they have put politics ahead of their responsibility under the Constitution by refusing even to hold hearings. This extreme obstructionism is both an unprecedented dereliction of duty and politics at its worst.

This is not a complicated issue. President Obama has a constitutional responsibility to make a nomination. The Senate has a constitutional duty to consider and then act on that nomination.

Supreme Court justices have been confirmed during presidential election years on six different occasions since 1900. Consider this quote from one Senate leader: "We need to recommit ourselves to the 200-year principle that in a democracy an up-or-down vote should be given to a president's judicial nominees. It is simple. It is fair. It has been that way for over two centuries. And it's served us well." That was Mitch McConnell, in 2005.

Somehow, the Majority Leader has forgotten what he once knew: That this is a democracy, and democracies have rules. Elections have consequences. As this editorial in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette points out, McConnell's assertion that refusing to move forward will "let the people decide" does not wash: "The arrogance of this stand is stunning, and it ignores the inconvenient reality that the people did decide: They elected Mr. Obama for a full second term, not for a term that would expire when the election campaign for his successor got really hot."

Any president's Supreme Court nominee deserves a hearing and a vote. If senators do not support that candidate, then they are fully within their rights to reject that nominee. But to refuse a vote, hearing, or even any meeting borders on childishness. Holding your breath and stamping your feet is neither leadership nor good governance.

It's also likely to backfire. If the Republican leadership wants to gamble that Americans don't care whether senators do their jobs, then they have a surprise in store. Vulnerable Republican senators such as New Hampshire's Kelly Ayotte, Ohio's Rob Portman, Pennsylvania's Pat Toomey, and Wisconsin's Ron Johnson could end up handing the Senate back to the Democrats in the next election.

Look, everyone knows we are living in a time when our government is not just divided but highly polarized. It's understandable that one party would feel threatened by the prospect of losing a key voice on the Supreme Court, possibly for decades. But there's an even greater issue at stake here. Will we allow extreme obstructionism to become the new norm for our government? Because if we do, we will have crippled our democracy in a way that makes coming together to solve our nation's real problems next-to-impossible. With that outcome, everyone loses.

So how will this get resolved? Hopefully, cooler minds will prevail. But that's likely to require some pressure. And that's where we all have a responsibility. Democracy shouldn't be a spectator sport. I've said many times that the power of the Sierra Club is in our people, and now is a time for us to use it. So along with our allies, we're mobilizing our grassroots to urge the Senate to stop obstructing our democracy.

If you haven't already, add your voice to the outcry. Let your senators know that it's time for them to do their job and hold hearings and vote on a new Supreme Court nominee.