Conservatives have a well-documented history of blocking nominations made by Democratic Presidents that goes back at least to the Obama presidency. During his term, the GOP famously filibustered about as many nominations as had been filibustered in all previous administrations combined.
The unprecedented refusal to give Merrick Garland a confirmation hearing is probably the most well-known case of Republican obstructionism. However, this pattern of holding up confirmations extended well beyond Supreme Court appointments. After Republicans won the Senate majority in 2014, judicial confirmations under Obama slowed to a crawl. As a result, Trump inherited 108 judicial vacancies. By comparison, George W. Bush inherited 84 vacancies from a Republican-controlled Senate under Clinton, and Obama inherited just 54 from a Democrat-controlled Senate under Bush – half as many as Obama’s Republican Senate left Trump.
Conservatives Have Engaged In Even More Obstruction Under Biden Than Under Obama
Perhaps learning from their success in stealing a Supreme Court seat, conservatives have ramped up their obstructionism even further during the Biden administration.
During his first year in office, Biden’s nominees took an average of 103 days to get confirmed – 23 days longer than Obama’s nominees, more than twice as long as George W. Bush’s, and nearly three times as long as Reagan’s. And Biden had a lower confirmation rate than even Trump – 55% to 57%, respectively – with 118 nominations returned without a vote compared to Trump’s 85. Obama, by contrast, had a 69% confirmation rate with seven nominations returned, and George W. Bush had a 75% confirmation rate with zero nominations returned.
However, this level of obstruction is only part of the story, and it may just be the beginning.
Conservatives Promise Their Abuses of Power Will Only Grow More Egregious
As early as 2016, Republican Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and others signaled support for the idea of holding Supreme Court seats open indefinitely – or at least until Republicans were in a position to fill the seats with their appointees. More recently, similar statements have been made by Republican leadership.
In interviews surrounding the Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson confirmation, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said that if Republicans regain control of the Senate, he would deny a potential Biden SCOTUS nominee a confirmation hearing during 2024, and suggested he might even hold the seat open for two full years. Likewise, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said, “if we were in charge, [Ketanji Brown Jackson] would not have been before this committee.” Justice Brown Jackson’s nomination came when the next presidential election was more than two and a half years away, suggesting there are no real limits on how far Republicans might go.
When contrasting this with their willingness to push through Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination just weeks before the 2020 election and McConnell’s stated 2020 motto to “leave no vacancy behind,” it becomes clear their positions are not based on any sort of principle of fairness or consistency – it is all about power.
And this partisan gamesmanship extends to executive branch nominees, too. More recently, Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) declared he would block critical Defense and State department nominees until Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin resigned. This led to Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) to say these were not serious or reasonable demands, and further excoriate Hawley for his childish behavior:
People used to come to me during the Trump administration all the time, “Do you think Trump should resign? I think all the people I disagree with should quit and be replaced with people I love. I think they should all resign. That's not how the world works.”
And these are just a few examples of the Republicans’ willingness to abuse Senate rules, cynically violate norms, and engage in rank hypocrisy for partisan gain.
Women and People of Color Face the Most Dishonest and Caustic Attacks
One of the more disturbing trends that has emerged during this new era of Republican obstructionism is that many of the most dishonest and caustic attacks on Democratic nominees have been reserved for women and people of color.
This behavior was on full display during the Ketanji Brown Jackson hearings, when Graham and his fellow Republicans attempted to paint her as soft on child sex offenders by cherrypicking cases and ignoring that her sentencing record fell well within the norms established by her peers. Other attacks included Senator Cruz demanding to know whether she thinks “babies are racist,” and Senator Graham displaying a bit of performative outrage toward her for helping ensure prisoners at Guantanamo Bay were given their constitutional right to defense counsel.
It's not lost on me that nominees of color have been treated differently in our hearings, whether it's insinuations of rap sheets, or hostility about their qualifications or views, or undue scrutiny of their personal religious faith.”
Senator Alex Padilla, D-CA
While the Brown Jackson hearing may be the most high-profile example, these attacks have been pervasive against women and people of color, prompting comments from multiple Democratic Senators. Senator Alex Padilla (D-CA) has been one of the most vocal: “It’s not lost on me that nominees of color have been treated differently in our hearings, whether it’s insinuations of rap sheets, or hostility about their qualifications or views, or undue scrutiny of their personal religious faith,” Padilla stated during a Senate Judiciary vote, adding that Republicans’ treatment of Biden’s nominees of color was “demeaning, offensive, and just plain wrong.”
These attacks have had more than just a rhetorical effect as well – according to Accountable.US research, Biden’s female nominees and nominees of color have taken significantly longer to confirm compared to white male nominees, in many cases due to the high levels of Republican obstructionism. Here are some stats on how women and people of color nominated to executive branch positions have fared during the confirmation process:
- Department of Justice – the confirmation process went 60% faster for white nominees compared to nonwhite nominees.
- Department of Commerce – on average, white nominees received hearings 20 days sooner than nonwhite nominees, and received confirmation votes nearly 50 days sooner.
- Department of Energy – male nominees received confirmation hearings twice as quickly as their female counterparts, and were confirmed an average of 46 days faster.
- Department of Interior – male nominees received confirmation hearings twice as fast as their female counterparts. The sole white male nominee received one of the fastest confirmations of any of Biden’s nominees at 63 days, while multiple key female nominees have been waiting more than 200 days, and have yet to receive a confirmation vote.
What Conservatives Would Have You Believe About Biden’s Female Nominees
It has been widely accepted for a long time that women in politics face higher scrutiny than men. Attacks on their character often rely on stereotypes, which can even lead to threats of violence. And the problem is only compounded for immigrants, women of color, and members of the LGBTQ community, who also face attacks rooted in xenophobia, racism, and other forms of bigotry. These attacks have broader implications, such as discouraging women from going into politics and making them feel unsafe when they get there. They also have a chilling effect on democracy.
Thanks in part to Trump and our hyper-polarized political landscape, these kinds of attacks have become increasingly common in recent years, not just in the U.S. but across the globe. Biden’s female executive branch nominees not been immune, either – in a series of case studies, Accountable.US has documented some of the most misleading and outlandish claims conservative groups, media figures, and elected officials have made against them:
Senator John Kennedy (R-LA) really doesn’t like the first Native American to be confirmed as Secretary of Interior, calling Deb Haaland “a neo-socialist, left-of-Lenin whack job,” despite her having one the strongest bipartisan records among freshmen congress members.
Similarly, Senator Steve Daines (R-MT) attempted to cast Haaland as a “radical” threat to Montanans “way of life,” and his communications director called her a “diehard, far-left ideologue,” with a “radical, hostile record.” In response, the editorial board of one of Montana’s flagship newspapers made a compelling case for why they believe “the vituperative nature of much of the GOP criticism is a dog-whistle reserved for a candidate of Haaland’s tribal status — and gender.”
These attacks on Haaland may have had something to do with financial ties to the oil and gas industry. At the time of Haaland’s nomination, Senate Republicans on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee had taken nearly $8.8 million in oil and gas donations throughout their careers, including more than $1.2 million each to Daines and Kennedy.
In addition to attacks from Senators, right-wing media figures and industry group leaders launched attacks on Haaland as well:
- Tucker Carlson pretended not to understand why Native Americans would be excited to have a Native American Cabinet Secretary, sarcastically talked about how proud the Norwegian-American community must be due to her Norwegian heritage, and decried the “identity politics” of it as “stupid and immoral.”
- American Energy Alliance President Thomas Pyle claimed “Representative Haaland has made disparaging comments not only about domestic oil and natural gas production, but also about the workers themselves,” though he never cited any specific comments to back up these assertions.
As soon as her nomination was announced, Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta was relentlessly attacked with false claims from right-wing dark money groups and media organizations. Leading the attack was the Judicial Crisis Network (JCN), an organization that has spent tens of millions of dollars from anonymous donors to put conservative activists on the Supreme Court.
JCN took out an $800,000 ad buy that claimed Gupta “supports defunding the police, led a group that wants to reduce punishments on white supremacists, even terrorists…[and] advocated to let convicts out of jail.” While fact-checking organizations described all these claims as “wildly misleading,” that didn’t stop Carrie Severino, head of the Judicial Crisis Network, from calling Gupta an “anti-police radical” and claiming she criticized crime victims’ families.
These claims and other claims were then echoed by Republican Senators during her confirmation hearings:
- Senator Cruz called her an “extreme partisan advocate” and claimed she “demonstrated an intolerance for and hostility to anyone who disagrees with the extreme left’s political positions.”
- Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) claimed she was putting on a moderate face to hide her “almost unbroken record of partisan culture war” and extreme leftist views, saying she has the potential to be “the most dangerous nominee to the Department of Justice.”
- Cruz and Cornyn disingenuously claimed she wants to defund the police. Meanwhile, Gupta received broad bipartisan support from former department officials, ex-US attorneys, and law enforcement groups, even receiving praise from the nation’s largest police union.
- A statement Gupta once made about everyone having implicit racial bias led Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) to suggest Gupta had described all Republicans as racist.
- Picking up on the racism theme, Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) asked Gupta if her organization’s opposition to several of Trump’s nonwhite judicial nominees was due to race.
- All 11 Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee wrote a letter to Chair Dick Durbin (D-IL) to request a second hearing, claiming Gupta had given misleading or incomplete responses on several topics where they had been mischaracterizing her record.
The National Women’s Law Center blamed Republican opposition to Gupta on “sexism and racism.”
The first black woman to be nominated as Assistant Attorney General was the target of a right-wing smear campaign that slowed down her confirmation, taking her twice as long to get a hearing as the average DoJ nominee. She faced some of the most wildly inaccurate characterizations of any nominee.
In one attack, Tucker Carlson claimed to have “uncovered shocking statements” Clarke made in a 1994 letter to the editor of the Harvard Crimson in her capacity as the Black Student Association president. Her statement that “Melanin endows Blacks with greater mental, physical and spiritual abilities – something which cannot be measured based on Eurocentric standards,” was a satirical rebuttal to The Bell Curve, a book published that same year that is still widely cited by those seeking a biological basis on which to justify white supremacy. Carlson, however, reported on the statement as if Clarke had been serious. This led other conservative outlets to report on Carlson’s exposé uncritically, and Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) to ask, “You seem to argue that African Americans are genetically superior to Caucasians — Is that correct?”
In another line of attack, the Koch-backed American Accountability Foundation claimed Clarke organized a conference “that was used as a tool by radical anti-government activists to champion cop-killers and free violent criminals” while at Columbia law. AAF also claimed that sharing the Southern Poverty Law Center’s critique of Blue Lives Matter as a divisive, reactionary response meant to undermine Black Lives Matter meant she thinks supporting the police is “polarizing and unacceptable.” These gross mischaracterizations were then taken even further by Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), who claimed she had a history of “celebrating murderers who have murdered police officers.”
As the first openly trans person to hold a Senate-confirmed position, Rachel Levine faced a series of relentless, malicious, transphobic attacks by Republican Senators and outside groups during her confirmation process.
- Breitbart, The Daily Wire, and other groups and publications intentionally misgendered Levine, a tactic frequently used to bully and harass transgendered people. Ben Shapiro, for example, called her “a biological man who believes he is a woman.”
- The Family Research Council claimed Levine “has an alarming track record of prioritizing a radical LGBT agenda and partisan politics over public health,” and mischaracterized her positions on gender-affirming care for minors, saying she has “advocated sex changes for children and adolescents.”
- American Principles Project accused Levine of advocating for “highly experimental” drugs for trans youth and questioned whether she would use her position to “override the legitimate objections of doctors and parents.” The American Medical Association has said assertions that gender-affirming care for trans youth are “extreme” or “experimental” are false.
- Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) compared gender-affirmed care to genital mutilation, and falsely claimed Levine supported “surgical destruction of a minor’s genitalia.” The World Health Organization and the American Association of Pediatricians do not support this comparison, but the claims were still repeated on Fox News, The Federalist, The Washington Examiner and other conservative outlets.
Despite garnering the support of more than 100 organizations in the Energy Sciences Coalition and being called a “phenomenal pick” by the research director at the Union of Concerned Scientists Center for Science and Democracy, Asmeret Berhe’s nomination for director of the Department of Energy Office of Science languished in the Senate for 380 days – more than four times as long as the average department nominee.
Opponents of Berhe’s nomination have claimed her nomination was a result of “identity politics,” and implied she owed much of her career to the University of California’s “obsessive diversity push.” One attack by a theoretical physicist who views diversity initiatives as “ideological encroachments” that are explicitly biased against white males appeared to inform Senator John Barrasso’s (R-WY) objections, where he argued she was not qualified, in part because her expertise in soil biochemistry was not central enough to the Office of Science’s work.
In a line of attack reserved almost exclusively for those of Middle Eastern descent and designed to appeal to those with xenophobic prejudices, the American Accountability Foundation has accused EEOC nominee Kalpana Kotagal of harboring an “anti-American agenda.” AAF also characterized the inclusion riders she helped develop for Hollywood as “race-based shakedowns,” and claims she will “weaponize the EEOC.” The organization even created a website dedicated to spreading these mischaracterizations to sink her nomination, which may be partly responsible for the lack of Republican support that has caused her nomination to become stalled in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Lisa Cook is the first black woman to serve on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors. Lauded by bankers, former Federal Reserve governors and top-tier economists as an excellent pick, Cook was nonetheless subject to attacks that focused on her qualifications and partisanship, as well as racist smear campaigns:
- Independent journalist and Daily Caller contributor Christopher Brunet called Cook “a random economist at Michigan State University who has shamelessly leveraged her skin color and genitalia,” and claimed, “If she were an Asian male economist, she would be laughed out of any school in the top 200.”
- The American Accountability Foundation claimed she “bailed out rioters who burned down American cities last summer.” This is a gross mischaracterization of her donations to charities that help low-income people pay bail, and implies people charged with vandalism and property destruction deserve to be locked up before having a trial.
- AAF also made highly dubious and unsupported claims that Cook “reportedly lied and failed her way to the top,” saying she “was denied promotion by her peers for lying on her professional resume.” They also hit her over her “anti-police rhetoric,” as well as her comments about Trump.
Cornell Law Professor Saule Omarova would have been the first woman, first person of color, and first immigrant to be the Treasury Department’s Comptroller of Currency, but ultimately withdrew after conservative groups and banking industry interests aligned to sink her nomination.
- Omarova grew up in Soviet Kazakhstan and attended Moscow State University, immigrating to the U.S. during the fall of the Soviet Union. Conservative groups and Republican officials used her personal history to engage in anti-communist fearmongering.
- Investigative reporters from the Daily Mail and possibly others went to Moscow to dig up dirt on her, seeking a paper she had written in college, and using a school picture of her around age 14 where she is wearing a red scarf as evidence of her communist sympathies.
- After fondly recounting a time she helped farmers harvest potatoes outside Moscow, the American Accountability Foundation proclaimed the Biden Administration had “nominated a woman who waxes nostalgic for the good ole days of poverty, hunger, and forced labor in communist Russia.”
- Senator John Kennedy (R-LA) said to Omarova during her Senate hearing, “I don’t know whether to call you professor or comrade,” leading to a rebuke from Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and causing at least one Republican Senator to distance themselves from Kennedy.
- In an unusual move, several banking industry associations opposed Omarova’s confirmation, seemingly stemming from her undergraduate thesis supporting the idea of administering consumer deposit accounts publicly instead of privately. This appeared to lead several Democratic Senators with ties to the banking industry to withhold their support.
I believe that the Wall Street lobby doesn't really care about my race or my sex or anything like that. They would have loved me just the way I am if only I stood up for their interests […] But they chose to weaponize my identity because that was the easiest way politically to tank my nomination.”
Sohn could be the first openly LBGTQ person to serve as an FCC commissioner, but as of July 2022, her appointment has been stalled in the Senate for more than nine months. Sohn has some unlikely supporters – conservative organizations Newsmax and One America News came out in favor of her nomination, citing her opposition to widespread media consolidation and the failed Sinclair-Tribune deal. The National Association of Broadcasters, and billionaire Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, however, are against Sohn’s nomination for the same basic reasons – that she supports net neutrality, antitrust laws, and regulating broadband providers more like public utilities.
Attacks on Sohn have ranged from seemingly irrelevant to the position she was nominated for, to bizarre and nonsensical, to mischaracterizations that appear to be driven by big providers’ fears her policies could limit their profit-making abilities.
- Fox News highlighted her past statements about Trump and Brett Kavanaugh, and donations to Obama and Hillary Clinton’s campaigns.
- The Fraternal Order of Police said it discerned a “serious animus towards law enforcement officers and the rule of law” from Sohn’s retweets and likes on Twitter. They also expressed concern over her support for strong encryption – seemingly implying they are against making it harder for the police to violate peoples’ fourth amendment rights.
- A group with ties to the telecom industry called One Country launched an ad campaign in six states claiming Sohn opposed the rollout of broadband internet access to rural communities. The LA Times called the “evidence” used to support this assertion “misleading to the point of fabrication.”
It took 430 days to confirm Shalanda Baker as Director of the Office of Minority Impact within the Department of Energy, despite already serving as the Deputy Director for Energy Justice, making her nomination an internal promotion. Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) blocked a unanimous consent vote on Baker, which ended up stalling her confirmation dramatically.
Lee argued Baker’s positions on racial issues related to capitalism should disqualify her, and took issue with the idea that the wealthiest should pay more for electricity. He accused her of “denigrating the very concept of the competitive markets,” and said he feared her positions would “end up preventing technological advances.” Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) responded by saying, “I feel that we are taking statements that people have made and whipping around them a lot of presumptions. There is a difference between saying I am against capitalism and I’m against racist capitalistic policies. That is a big difference.”
Robinson’s nomination for Assistant Secretary of Energy was ultimately withdrawn after 250 days, failing to make it out of committee on a party-line vote. Robinson’s previous work in the energy sector was well-received by many in the industry, but Republican Senator James Lankford (R-OK) attempted to paint her as against American energy for opposing natural gas pipelines, claiming her nomination “may actually lead to increased emissions and jeopardize the energy reliability.” He then criticized her for not opposing Russian tankers unloading natural gas in Boston harbor when she was a Massachusetts state legislator.