Shelby Blocks Nominations Over Redstone Pork

richard-shelby-blanket-holdAlabama’s Richard Shelby has placed a hold on all nominations until a 2008 earmark for Redstone Arsenal is released. The Mobile Press-Register:

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, is blocking Senate action on executive branch nominations, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said this afternoon in an e-mail.

In response to a question from the Press-Register, Reid spokeswoman Regan Lachapelle confirmed that Shelby has placed a “blanket hold” on most pending nominations.

By placing a hold, a single senator can stop the Senate from voting on a particular nomination, often as a way of gaining leverage on an unrelated issue. It is not clear when Shelby placed the hold or how many nominees are affected. While individual holds are not unusual, Gary Jacobson, a congressional expert at the University of California at San Diego, said he knew of no previous use of a blanket hold.

TPM’s Evan McMorris-Santoro adds:

According to the report, Shelby is holding Obama’s nominees hostage until a pair of lucrative programs that would send billions in taxpayer dollars to his home state get back on track. The two programs Shelby wants to move forward or else:

– A $40 billion contract to build air-to-air refueling tankers. From CongressDaily: “Northrop/EADS team would build the planes in Mobile, Ala., but has threatened to pull out of the competition unless the Air Force makes changes to a draft request for proposals.” Federal Times offers more details on the tanker deal, and also confirms its connection to the hold.

– An improvised explosive device testing lab for the FBI. From CongressDaily: “[Shelby] is frustrated that the Obama administration won’t build” the center, which Shelby earmarked $45 million for in 2008. The center is due to be based “at the Army’s Redstone Arsenal.”

Needless to say, people aren’t amused.

Steve Benen:

The abuse, the arrogance, the corruption … it’s just breathtaking. Shelby is proving himself to be little more than a petty, greedy thug, undermining our system of government until he’s been paid off to his satisfaction.

[…]

What’s more, it’s additional evidence, as if more was needed, that congressional Republicans are simply out of control. At a time when the nation needs strong institutions, GOP lawmakers have not only gone mad, they’re also tearing down governmental touchstones like the United States Senate.

It’s inexcusable and unsustainable. Something’s gotta give.

Josh Marshall:

This is more like just a stick up. Gimme my money and I’ll give you your Senate back! Worse than a squeegee man and not much better than a bank robber, Shelby is shutting down the president’s ability to appoint anyone to anything until he gets his way. In a sense Shelby’s gambit is little different from what countless other senators of both parties have done in the past, using the senate rules to get the White House’s attention to pry some money free from the federal government. But the scale is unheard and the moment is different. The only mystery about this one is which is more outrageous — Shelby’s hold or the fact that the rest of the senators of both parties allow it.

Joe Gandelman:

I’m sure McCain and talk radio hosts who have been blasting the Democrats for their demonstrably craven political behavior on this issue will be making Shelby an issue as well.

Ezra Klein:

This is really no way to run a government.

Kenton Kelly (aka Dennis The Peasant):

Republicans should always remember that Barack Obama is President of the United States largely because of people like Richard Shelby (and George W. Bush)… Republicans who talk about “fiscal restraint” to the gullible while engaging in the exact behavior they decry in Democrats.

Indeed.

Still, while I’m no fan of Shelby — I still harbor ill will over his malicious and slanderous 1986 campaign against Jeremiah Denton — nor of the use of holds as leverage for unrelated matters, I’m inclined to cut him some slack here.

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.

UPDATE:  Yes, I wish this wasn’t how spending decisions were made in Washington.  I’d much prefer a needs-based approach.  But I don’t expect Shelby to unilaterally disarm, either. So long as we’re spending ridiculous amounts in pork, I expect him to fight for Alabama’s share.

UPDATE II: 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.  Unlike Cole and Wheeler, I’m not upset by Shelby’s preferring “foreign” companies doing business in Alabama over “domestic” ones up north.  But using an extreme tool to get pork for the state after losing a legitimate bid is wrong, whereas using it to get back something legitimately awarded and subsequently stolen is within the bounds of fair play.

UPDATE III: Steven Taylor and Ezra Klein have backgrounders on the hold process.  I agree with both that the privilege is too subject to abuse; indeed, its very existence is absurd in most conceivable circumstances.  And Steven is likely right that the projects in question aren’t really “pork” in a meaningful sense.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Ben says:

    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.

    Wait, the first one you listed is 40 billion. I hardly consider that “measly”. That was around the size of the entire auto bailout that caused so much uproar




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  2. Raoul says:

    JJ=apologist. Never do I want to hear another government deficit matter here.




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  3. sam says:

    Well, the President’s Day recess is coming up, so Obama could recess appoint every one of the 70 Shelby put on hold. As Jonathan Zasloff said, over at Mark Kleiman’s place: Every. Single. One.




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  4. Steve Plunk says:

    This conservative has no use for pork grabbers. Shelby should understand how this damages the country and how our grandchildren will be paying for it. Upholding principles leads to trust, Shelby is hurting all Republicans by doing this.




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  5. anjin-san says:

    Country Pork First.




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  6. Roberta Taussig says:

    What other leverage does he have? Come on! He has his vote, which is valuable now in ways it has never been, as the Obama administration is desperate to get one Republican to vote for anything on its agenda. I’m not saying he should give them his vote on health care reform, but surely there are less visible administration initiatives that he could vote for in exchange for his pork. Stopping all nominations is just obstructionism gone berserk.




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  7. Sorry James, but this isn’t defensible just because he’s doing it for a good cause — his state, in this instance. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, though I do find the over the top histrionics from the punditry amusing.

    Meanwhile, I hear DC may be shut down for a while because of the snow storm. Good. Do we get back $5B in deficit spending for each day they are down?




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  8. PD Shaw says:

    What if Congress passed a law for free condom distribution and the President thought it was a stupid law and ignored it? What’s a Congressman who supported the law supposed to do? I’d say start with holding oversight hearings to determine the reasons that condoms aren’t being distributed and evaluate the excuses. More hearings and more hearings before pulling a stunt like this. Now, maybe Shelby isn’t on the right committees or he lacks the vote to hold oversight hearings on this issue.

    But is the answer simply to do nothing? Isn’t their a rule of law issue here, or we all executive unilateralists now?




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  9. tom p says:

    But I don’t expect Shelby to unilaterally disarm, either. So long as we’re spending ridiculous amounts in pork, I expect him to fight for Alabama’s share.

    True enuf James, true enuf, but isn’t this the wrong way to go about bringing home the bacon? At a time of extreme difficulties for our country (economy, wars, terrorism, etc) he wants to hold the governance of our country hostage? By putting on hold all nominees? Including some for treasry, national security, defense, and justice? Not only is it ridiculous, it is just outright stupid. This takes “advise and consent” to whole new levels of ludicrousness.

    As Roberta said:

    He has his vote, which is valuable now in ways it has never been, as the Obama administration is desperate to get one Republican to vote for anything on its agenda.




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  10. tps says:

    Another beef Shelby has is the big changes in store for NASA will effect the Marshall Space Flight Center. That the programs being dumped are pieces of junk and there are commercial companies building rockets in Alabama don’t seem to matter to him.




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  11. Herb says:

    So long as we’re spending ridiculous amounts in pork, I expect him to fight for Alabama’s share.

    The problem is there are 49 other states who have the same expectations, and many of them (22 of them, to be exact) have much larger populations.

    Contrast Alabama’s 4.7 million people with California’s 39.9 million people. Or Michigan’s 9.9 million. They too have Senators willing to “fight for their state’s fair share,” but I’m not so sure they’d dare to be so egregious about it.

    If Shelby wanted to do something for his state, he should move to where-ever the Just For Men factory is. Dude’s keeping them in business by his own self.




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  12. Grewgills says:

    As a U.S. Senator, I believe that the review of judicial nominations is one of the most important responsibilities of the Senate, and I firmly believe that each of the President’s nominees should be afforded a straight up-or-down vote. I do not think that any of us want to operate in an environment where federal judicial nominees must receive 60 votes in order to be confirmed. To that end I firmly support changing the Senate rules to require that a simple majority be necessary to confirm all judicial nominees, thus ending the continuous filibuster of them. Federal judges are invested with extensive power and are given lifetime tenure. Therefore, I pay particularly close attention to the records, backgrounds, and philosophical views of all judicial nominees prior to voting. Given the tremendous shortage of federal judges, it is my hope that the Senate will move quickly to confirm judicial appointments.

    Guess who said that.




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  13. steve says:

    The Republican’s supposed belief in small government has been challenged and found wanting. I think this is going to happen over and over. Red states receive a disproportionate percentage of federal spending. If we are going to cut spending, they will have to take a lot of the hits. TBH, I do expect Obama and co. to aim their cuts more at red states forcing Republican Senators to defend spending.

    Steve




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  14. Barry says:

    James Joyner: ” 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.”

    James, there are times when I’ve felt that you’ve made very bad analyses; this is another such time.

    If Shelby and (whomever the heck is the other GOP toad from Alabama) was willing to bargain on healthcare reform this past summer, they’d have gotten both a voice in HCR *and* whatever pork was necessary. They have no other leverage in the sense that they don’t want to break party discipline, no matter what. That has consequences.




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  15. James Joyner says:

    If Shelby and (whomever the heck is the other GOP toad from Alabama) was willing to bargain on healthcare reform this past summer, they’d have gotten both a voice in HCR *and* whatever pork was necessary.

    Jeff Sessions is the other Republican. But, frankly, no Senator who could have gotten elected from Alabama — say, the late Howell Heflin — could have justified signing on. The Dems, rightly, were focusing on the likes of Olympia Snowe, not Southern conservatives.




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