Virtually no one on the right has had anything to say about Shelby’s earmark-driven blanket hold on executive branch nominations. Progressive blogs are understandbly outraged, and the only person I have found willing to defend Shelby’s maneuver in the slightest is James Joyner. James writes:
First, he’s up for re-election this year, so bringing millions of dollars home to Alabama during troubled economic times is especially important to him. Second, at least one of these projects was previously approved — and I don’t know what Shelby gave up to make that deal — under the previous administration. Third, when we’re incurring federal debt in the trillions of dollars, it’s hard to begrudge a few measly million for what sound like perfectly valid national security-related projects. [Update: Oops -- misread the first figure; obviously, this is real money we're talking about.]
Is the use of a blanket hold a sleazy way to get the job done? Yup. But I’m not sure what other leverage Shelby has. The state is represented by two Republican Senators, neither of whom are named Olympia Snowe. With a Democratic president and 59 Democratic Senators, he has to use every trick in the book to fight for his state.
Over the last three years I have been making fun of the Republican obsession with earmarks. Coming off the ’06 defeat, Republican leaders convinced themselves that it was “wasteful spending” and earmarks that had so disgusted their rank-and-file supporters that it suppressed turnout and cost them the elections. Not only was this wrong as a matter of understanding why they had lost, but the preoccupation with a legislative mechanism about which most of the public knew nothing and cared less was proof of just how out of touch Republicans in Washington had become. In any case, Shelby’s move reminds us that even their newfound outrage over earmarks is meaningless.
In the wake of Scott Brown’s win, a number of progressive bloggers flagged Pew survey results showing remarkable public ignorance about the institutional workings of Congress. They found the low percentage that knew how many votes were required to end a filibuster (26%) to be particular discouraging, and a common conclusion was that Republican tactics were not going to be held against them because most of the public had no understanding of any of the relevant procedures that the GOP was exploiting to thwart the Democrats’ agenda. Ezra Klein:
It’s a depressing poll, and for the White House, it should be a troubling one. Their argument essentially relies on a fairly deep level of procedural knowledge and interest. Enough, at least, to understand that the amount of governing the majority can do is dependent on how much governing the minority lets them do. It’s not an easy argument to make, and it’s even harder if the White House does not plan to make an issue out of its premises.
Now Shelby has resorted to an equally obscure, poorly-understood procedural maneuver, so it seems unlikely that there are very many persuadable voters who are going to be aware of what Shelby is doing. Then again, the scale of Shelby’s blanket hold is different from most of the minority’s other maneuvers. It is considerably more brazen and obnoxious than anything the GOP has tried before this, it is a completely unforced error, and it seems to have energized both the administration and progressive activists like nothing has in months. James is giving Shelby far too much credit. His colleague, Jeff Sessions, had already placed two holds on Pentagon nominees on account of the same tanker contract. Like it or not, that is well within normal Senate practice and simply part of how things are done there. It seems probable that Sessions’ two holds could have accomplished the same goal without throwing up an obstacle on all executive branch nominees. Indeed, I can’t imagine anything more damaging to support for these projects than Shelby’s excessive use of this tactic.
What I find most irritating about Shelby’s tactic is that he pretends that his home-state projects are vital to national security. His spokesman even refers to the projects as “unaddressed national security concerns.” He does not try to defend his move as an attempt to secure money and jobs for his state, which is clearly what it is. Shelby’s move may be parochial and self-interested, but one could at least offer some minimal defense of his reasons, albeit not his methods, if he were willing to acknowledge that this is nothing more than an effort to get some federal money back home during an election year. Many of Shelby’s critics are attacking him for his parochialism, but he could at least make the case that he is trying to serve the interests of his constituents. Instead he feels compelled to pretend that this is some high-minded fight over principle and national security. This is cynical nonsense, and it makes his cause an entirely unsympathetic one.
Update: Just to drive home this last point, I refer you to this article in Federal Times that explains that Shelby’s maneuver is aimed at helping Northrop Grumman and Airbus win the bid for the tanker contract. They had already won the bid last year, but following Boeing’s protest the deal was scrapped. If Boeing wins the contract, the tankers will still be built and there will be no harm to national security. Shelby cares who wins because Northrop’s part of the contract would have been based in Mobile, but as far as the general public is concerned it doesn’t matter where these tankers are built.
Second Update: James has an update in which he backs off from his original argument:
If John Cole and Marci Wheeler are correct, and the 2008 bid was awarded in error and thereafter rescinded by the Air Force, then most of the above is moot and Shelby is unjustified in this action even by the low standards of hardball politics.