- - Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Cue the outrage. A senator obstructs the administration of the government by placing a hold on a presidential nominee to an executive position. Usually this provokes shouts of “hostage taking,” with reminders to look to the results of the previous presidential election as justification for a president to get his way. But the halls of Congress resound to no such piety this week. The senator threatening a filibuster is a Democrat.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York won’t allow Jo Ann Rooney to become the undersecretary of the Navy. The nominee and the senator are clashing over whether an outside military prosecutor should investigate and prosecute accusations of sexual assault. Ms. Rooney wants commanders to continue to decide what to do with misbehaving subordinates, and Mrs. Gillibrand insists on outsiders because she thinks they would be tougher on the accused.

It’s a debate worth having, and the senator is right to hold Mr. Obama’s choice in limbo until the nominee’s intentions are clear. This is a perfect example of how a hold, which is a polite way to threaten a filibuster, accomplishes what the Founders intended, ensuring the Senate provides advice as well as consent to the president. That’s something Mrs. Gillibrand and Sen. Harry Reid, the majority leader, tried to prevent last year. They threatened to invoke the “nuclear option,” of eliminating the filibuster for presidential nominees to the executive and judicial branches. “I agree with Senator Reid,” Mrs. Gillibrand said then, “we must change the rules of the Senate and reform the filibuster to get Washington working again.”

She’s on the other side of the argument now. Hypocrisy and Washington go together like a burger and a beer. Republicans no less than Democrats often decide questions of right and wrong by turning to political expediency. Not so long ago, a Republican majority mulled the possibility of eliminating filibusters to give President George W. Bush the opportunity to fill additional seats in the judiciary. Had the Republicans done so, they would surely regret it now. Democrats should remember that what goes around comes around, and usually soon. Mr. Reid himself is angry now over the nomination of Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. He should consider whether it’s worth destroying a Senate tradition to assuage pique that will soon pass.


Robert Dove, the Senate’s parliamentarian emeritus, argues persuasively that the filibuster protects the rights of the minority, preserves checks and balances, and enforces the separation of powers. He recalls an example from 1975, when two senators lost a cloture vote to end a filibuster and sought revenge by filing 800 separate amendments. “It was clear that the post-cloture filibuster could go on for months,” says Mr. Dove.

All presidents want gratification in the moment, and it’s the duty of the Senate to slow things down. Whether Mrs. Gillibrand’s hold on a nominee to be undersecretary of the Navy or Sen. Lindsey Graham’s attempt to block all nominees until the Obama administration comes clean on what happened in Benghazi are correct, these senators are taking their duty seriously. Mr. Reid ought to assist Mrs. Gillibrand and her colleagues to get the answers they seek by strengthening, not weakening, the Senate’s filibuster rules. He might one day be glad he did.