On Thursday, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) placed a “blanket hold” on all of President Obama’s nominees, effectively preventing the Senate from voting on any of them. In a statement, Shelby’s office accused the administration of “coddling terrorists” and said he was blocking Obama’s appointments due to “unaddressed national security concerns.” In particular, Shelby feels that the Air Force’s process for deciding who would get a $40 billion contract to replace its fleet of refueling tankers was unfair to Northrop Grumman, which has plants in Alabama, and that the administration has been slow to build a $45 million FBI explosives lab earmarked for Huntsville. The statement added that “If this administration were as worried about hunting down terrorists as it is about the confirmation of low-level political nominations, America would be a safer place.”
But if both of Sen. Shelby’s concerns are technically related to national security, they hardly amount to “coddling terrorists.” Indeed, it looks like Shelby’s primary concern is not that our national security is threatened but that Alabama isn’t getting its share of the national security money. In particular, Shelby has suggested that President Obama has slighted Northrop Grumman in favor of Boeing, which is based in Chicago. Whether or not that’s true—and it’s certainly appropriate for a senator to represent the interests of his state—it hardly seems appropriate to block votes on 70 nominees, including intelligence officials at the Departments of State and Homeland Security. Shelby, of course, managed to bring home more earmark money last year than any other senator beside Robert Byrd and has received more than $100,000 in political contributions from Northrop Grumman over the years. As Josh Marshall says, this isn’t so much a principled stand as it is a simple stick up.
Democrats have quickly linked Sen. Shelby’s stunt to the Republican obstructionism more generally. White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer called it “just the latest example” of Republican opposition for opposition’s sake, and the Democratic National Committee has already released a web video blaming Shelby and other Republicans for “leaving empty chairs in the Pentagon.” They are probably right to use Shelby to dramatize the way Republicans tried to prevent just about anything from getting done in Congress—it is not a coincidence, after all, that a year into Obama’s presidency that there are still 70 nominees waiting to be confirmed. And the Democrats have done a poor job of conveying to the public just how obstructionist Republicans have been.
What Sen. Shelby is doing, of course, is more about getting handouts for Alabama than it is part of the larger strategy of Republican obstructionism. It has more in common with Sen. Ben Nelson’s (D-NE) trading his vote on health care in exchange for a “Cornhusker kickback”—millions of dollars of special exemptions from bearing the cost of Medicaid just for the state of Nebraska. And if anything it should dramatize just how easily a single senator can block Senate business. While no senator can actually place a hold on Senate business, as Ezra Klein explains, a single senator like Shelby can stop all business in the Senate by forcing a week of procedural votes to break a filibuster—and, in effect, threaten to shut down the government in order to make sure his pet project gets funded. The fact that a single senator can hold the Senate hostage by invoking procedural rules—none of which are in the Constitution—is a large part of why it is so hard to get anything done in the Senate. As White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs put it, “if you needed one example of what’s wrong with this town, it might be that one senator can hold up 70 qualified individuals to make government work better because he didn’t get his earmarks.”