Truth-First.com :: Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) has been revealed to be placing a “blanket hold” on 70 of Pres. Obama’s nominees, while demanding an estimated $40 billion in earmarks for his state. The revelation, published yesterday in CongressDaily, is being called one of the most flagrant examples of political corruption in recent memory. According to CongressDaily’s reporting, “While holds are frequent, Senate aides said a blanket hold represents a far more aggressive use of the power than is normal.”
The fact that Shelby appears so flagrantly to be using this procedural stunt to demand billions of dollars in payments to political or industrial operations in his state has raised the accusation that he is in fact guilty of a kind of extortion. As Dylan Loewe wrote in Friday’s Huffington Post, “This is unconscionably outrageous. If it were occurring anywhere else but the Senate chamber it would be extortion. A felony. It is an egregious misuse of minority power, easily the most flagrant example in years.”
Loewe also argues that the revelation of Shelby’s shockingly unscrupulous activity —a number of the nominations are likely related to vital public services, including national security— is a cue to Democrats to finally stand up and cry foul, to put the Republican party absolutely on the spot, facing the dilemma: do we continue to obstruct and be known for undermining national security and the public good, with overtly corrupt intent, or do we begin to work with Obama and the Democrats?
But the real problem for Republicans now that this unprecedented obstruction has come to light is that some of them are demanding a moratorium on earmarks, in an attempt to accuse the Democratic Congress of overspending on pet projects for home districts, yet they are backing an effort to undermine federal agencies as part of an overt attempt to extort earmarks from the Congressional leadership and the administration.
The obvious question any observer without a vested interest in defending Shelby’s actions must ask is: how can one senator simply assign to himself power superior even to that of the president on the question of filling appointments? There is no such right in the United States Constitution, and surely any rule that would allow for a filibuster was not designed to allow one anonymous member of the Senate to block over 70 appointments to important posts in the executive branch of government.
John Marshal of the Talking Points Memo Editors Blog writes:
This is more like just a stick up. Gimme my money and I’ll give you your Senate back! Worse than a squeegee man and not much better than a bank robber, Shelby is shutting down the president’s ability to appoint anyone to anything until he gets his way.
The Shelby affair has yet more layers of stunning hubris: the $40 billion project he is demanding action for is actually related to a bidding process in which a joint venture between Northrop Grumman and EADS —the European parent of Airbus— is competing against Boeing for a contract to build a new aerial refueling tanker. The Northrop/EADS venture plans to build the tanker in Mobile, Alabama, if it wins, but is threatening to withdraw its bid altogether unless the Air Force makes the conditions of bidding more favorable to its needs.
Shelby is literally trying to undermine the federal government’s ability to do business effectively and have responsible, politically accountable leadership, in order to lobby on behalf of a foreign corporation, against an American corporation. In order to coerce payment of billions of dollars in earmarks to corporations that might do business in his home state, Sen. Shelby is blocking at least five appointments to the Department of Defense, in a time when the United States is involved in two wars, on the other side of the world.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) angrily denounced the blocking of these appointments on the floor of the United States Senate, explaining how the blanket hold can undermine readiness and interfere with a wide array of services related to providing adequate attention and care to the personnel who serve in the armed forces. Even the provision of fully adequate medical resources to the front could be slowed by vacancies at key Pentagon posts.
The hold can also undermine the ability of the Pentagon to have real oversight of technology acquisition, meaning the quality of new technologies adopted is not currently being overseen by a politically accountable official, nor is the issue of cost related to existing and new technologies.
In fact, the hold on the appointment for Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisitions could be directly linked to the job-description of that post and, by extension, to the billions of dollars Shelby hopes to win for his state, a conflict of interest that implies Sen. Shelby hopes to hide the potential for massive cost overruns that could be associated with the multi-billion-dollar contract he is trying to win, by way of these coercive tactics.
After dodging questions and refusing to give comment on the issue, Sen. Shelby’s office did confirm he is blocking nominations in direct connection with the two Defense-related programs he wants to come to his state. Sen. Shelby has reportedly made the wildly false claim that if a $45 million FBI outpost designed to study IEDs (improvised explosive devices) is not built in Alabama, it will “impede” the government’s ability to defend against terrorism.
The claim is false, because the Pentagon already conducts the world’s most advanced IED research through a number of explosive ordnance disposal programs, in which engineers and explosives experts stage real tests of real explosives in scenarios designed to mimic both the environment of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, as well as urban combat and potential terrorist attack. Substantive details on the fate of the specific FBI-related earmark Shelby is demanding for his state have not been released in connection with this story.
Even as Sen. John McCain and other top Republicans push for a moratorium on all earmarks of any kind, Sen. Shelby’s action implies the Republican party is supportive of the blanket hold for dollars, or had hoped the nature of the blanket hold would not come to light. Though earmarks and negotiation around pet projects are considered routine business in the Senate, the scope of Sen. Shelby’s apparent abuse of the rules has some asking whether he might be vulnerable to corruption charges, or even impeachment for abuse of office.
While the Constitution lists “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors” as impeachable offenses, the history of the impeachment process and legal scholarship tends toward the rule that Congress alone can determine what actions constitute impeachable offenses. While the general public tends to view actions like Shelby’s as a kind of solicitation of bribes, if not outright extortion, it is unlikely any member of Congress would be so ready to set that standard on earmarks.
Even the most outspoken opponents of earmarks, such as Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and his onetime running mate, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, have consistently sought huge federal investments in their states. Except of course on specific issues where their desire to cry foul over government spending made it necessary to disavow any such ambitions. In fact, on a per-capita basis, Palin and the Alaskan Congressional delegation, tainted by actual corruption charges, were more aggressive in seeking earmark dollars than any other state.
The more likely route members of the Democratic majority in the Senate will take is to accuse Shelby of pandering to corporate interests, putting the security of the nation at risk, undermining the federal government’s ability to rein in cost and oversee spending, maybe even of a kind of non-criminal extortion; he will be pressured to take the fall as the worst offender in a minority of obstructionists and earmark addicts, and the Republican party will be pressured to distance itself from his actions.
The goal would be to lift the hold, confirm some or all of the blocked nominees, secure a serious political victory for Pres. Obama and the Democratic cause, and to show the majority as strong in fighting against corrupt practices, conflict of interest and legislative extortion. Sen. Shelby would be punished politically, as he tries to throw blame in all directions (which his office has already begun to do—attacking the military, the Congress, the president, and anyone other than himself), in a climate where no one wants to be seen as being on his side.
The Republican leadership may also fear the backlash from Sen. Shelby’s actions, because there is already widespread and angry bipartisan opposition to the now blanket use of the filibuster loophole to obstruct legislative business in the Senate. The filibuster is a storied and favorite tool of Senate minority parties, but supporters of both parties have been angered in a visceral way over the last two decades, as the filibuster has expanded wildly in use.
There is significant pressure on Democrats to use any number of procedural options to simply change the rules on filibusters, possibly requiring that any senator making the threat either follow through or face some loss of authority within the Senate, or reducing the number of issues where the filibuster is even applicable to a safely small number. As CongressDaily noted in its report yesterday, Vice Pres. Biden, a long-time senator himself (elected 7 times to the Senate) has been taking a serious look at filibuster reform:
“What I have been doing is spending a lot of time having my staff go back and scrub this, you know, the use of the filibuster and how it’s worked,” Biden said. “This is not a constitutional requirement.”
Biden defended the 60-vote requirement, calling it “a useful tool. It’s legitimate, but from my perspective having served here, having been elected seven times, I’ve never seen a time when it’s become sort of standard operating procedure. … Requiring a supermajority is just not a good way to do business.
That the procedural maneuvers being used by Republicans like Shelby to hijack the process and undermine the federal government are not actually Constitutionally sanctioned does leave obstructionists more vulnerable to the charge that they are abusing their offices in order to win money for special interests or simply to encroach upon the separation of powers. But even so, the fallout will likely remain political, unless some direct communication with an interested party, in which money itself is discussed, were to come to light.