The United States Senate has been called “the most exclusive club.” With a hundred seats divided among 320 million people, it’s a hard crowd to break into. But it also suggests that throughout its history, the U.S. Senate has looked more like an elite country club than anything democratic. This was by design, of course. Until 1913, the common American wasn’t even considered qualified to cast a vote for a senator; this was left to state legislatures. That practice ended with the passage of the 17th amendment, but there remains an air of detachment around the august body.
For progressives, this detachment has been felt acutely in recent weeks as even liberal lions like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have voted in favor of Trump Cabinet nominees who, by any measure, appear deeply unqualified for their posts. Warren voted, in committee, in favor of Ben Carson to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, despite the former Republican presidential candidate’s clear lack of qualifications.
But Warren’s track record on this count is glittering compared to those of Washington Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray. So far, the two Democrats have voted in favor of four out of six Trump Cabinet picks. Some are defensible votes, such as the approval of Gen. James Mattis for the Department of Defense; others, like their votes in favor of John Kelly to run the Department of Homeland Security, are entirely out of step with their constituency. Kelly has vowed to crack down on sanctuary cities—that is, to crack down on Seattle. He has also taken a hard line on undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children; he will make no exceptions when it comes to deportation efforts aimed at the estimated 17,000 “dreamers” who live in Washington state. There’s little doubt that Kelly, confirmed by a vote of 88–11, would have gotten through the process with or without our senators’ support. But that doesn’t change the fact that those three words—“our,” “senators,” and “support”—should never cohabitate with “John Kelly” in a sentence.
This isn’t to suggest that Murray and Cantwell have been entirely spineless in these first days of the Trump administration. Murray, as the ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has spoken clearly and forcefully against Betsy DeVos, Trump’s potentially destructive nominee for Secretary of Education, since confirmed. Cantwell has boycotted votes on Steve Mnuchin—the amnesiac Treasury pick who forgot to disclose $100 million in assets upon his nomination—and Tom Price, the Health Department nominee hell-bent on repealing a law that has provided 20 million Americans with health care. Murray and Cantwell have both vowed to vote against Jeff Sessions’ confirmation for Attorney General. These are principled stances we can be proud of.
But we expect more. Coming from a state where only 38 percent of voters cast ballots for Trump, it makes little sense that Murray and Cantwell’s voting record on Trump’s nominees should line up with those of Democrats from states that voted overwhelmingly for Trump. Yet to date they have voted against the same number of Cabinet nominees as Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, whose state voted 56–36 for Trump. Washington is clearly resisting and rejecting Trump, and our senators should reflect that.
This point will become all the more imperative in coming weeks, as attention shifts from confirming Cabinet members to confirming a Supreme Court nominee to what amounts to a stolen seat that should have gone to President Obama’s long-waiting nominee Merrick Garland. With the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to fill Antonin Scalia’s seat, Democrats are in an admittedly difficult spot; with the party holding neither the White House nor the Senate, an argument is being made that Murray, Cantwell, and other Democrats should play good Senators and approve the conservative but qualified (says conventional wisdom) Gorsuch.
If Murray and Cantwell represent us, they will reject this rationale.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell set a clear precedent for legislative obstruction during the Obama presidency. Even if the Republican Party had managed to nominate and help elect a reasonable representative of their party platform to the presidency, Democrats would have good reason to obstruct and hamstring that president’s efforts. As it happened, the Republican Party helped put the country under the authority of a blustering, dangerous incompetent. After watching the Trump administration haphazardly purge the disloyal from the federal government, continually lie to the press and the people, and openly question the authority of the judiciary, it is clear to us that Democrats do not only have the right to obstruct this administration, but the responsibility to—especially when considering a Supreme Court justice who will likely vote on the constitutionality of President Trump’s actions.
The Democrats must stand united in obstructing this administration, and our senators should be in the vanguard.