Are Sen. Tuberville’s Military Nomination Holds a Threat to Effective Democracy?
By John Aldrich, Pfizer-Pratt University Professor of Political Science, Duke University
Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) has placed a hold on hundreds of military promotions and nominations. A hold means that he, and he alone, stops Senate consideration. As a result, major military positions like the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Chief of Staff of the Army, and Commandant of the Marine Corps remain unfilled as he single-handedly seeks to change military abortion policy.
Many senators disapprove of Tuberville’s actions, including minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), as well as 58% of Alabama voters, according to a recent Public Policy Polling survey. Estimates are that it would take the Senate up to 84 eight-hour days to get around the holds. Is permitting such individual havoc any way to run a democracy?
Military Reproductive Health Policy
What motivated Sen. Tuberville to take such unusually extensive action despite party, Senate, and constituent opposition? How did such a procedure become available for Tuberville in the first place? Since the Supreme Court decided Roe v Wade in 1973, those on the pro-life side have sought redress to change abortion policy. With the major 2022 decision Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization undoing much of Roe’s results, Dobbs’ biggest impact was to return abortion policy to the state level. As a result, the Biden administration and Department of Defense decided to support those in the military who must travel out of state to receive abortions and provide other related reproductive healthcare resources.
Tuberville objects to this policy and is using the mounting toll of holds on promotions and nominations to pressure the Biden administration to reverse it. Because many military bases are located in states that have imposed restrictions on abortion access, the policy supports leave to travel to other states. It is not yet apparent whether military members can travel to states that make abortion available when their state does not, though the court might be asked eventually to make a ruling. The question is whether the Department of Defense can authorize leave and travel for abortions and whether pressure can be placed to induce them to change that policy. Hence, Tuberville’s holds.
How Do Senate Procedures Allow Such Obstacles to Democracy?
The Senate has always had a tenuous relationship with the core democratic principle of translating the wishes of the public into effective government policy. Originally, the public had no direct role in selecting senators—state legislatures chose them. The Senate is highly gerrymandered by virtue of having equal representation of states rather than constituents. The Republican Party in the last half of the 19th century, for example, brought in territories to become states long before they would have been eligible following precedent. With very close House and presidential votes at that time, the Republicans built a secure majority in the Senate.
Senate rules also require a supermajority to vote cloture (i.e. to shut off) debate and thereby end a filibuster, which any one Senator can initiate. It is so unlikely to vote cloture that when the minority party threatens to filibuster, the majority party basically caves in and removes that bill from consideration. The result is that most legislation emerges from the House and, all too often, goes to the Senate to die. In this light, maybe Tuberville’s unusual use of holds is more benign than, say, the filibuster. But then, maybe not. The hold is really a variation on the same democratic deficit in the Senate.
Unlike the House, the Senate may have too few rules, while the House generally seems mired in too many of them. Two-thirds of the Senate are not up for election in any year, unlike all of the House. At the end of every two-year Congress, the House reformulates itself after the election, electing a Speaker, swearing in 435 Members, and adopting whatever rules it chooses for the coming two years. The Senate considers itself a continuing body and does not actively re-choose its rules every two years. As a result, it rarely changes them.
With only 26 members at the Founding, it chose to be relatively unbound by cumbersome procedures. Its few Senators could speak on any issue for as long as they wanted without seriously delaying consideration. And so the filibuster was born, seen then to be furthering representative democracy. It was a (relatively) collegial body, so it needed few rules, making a virtue of unanimous consent. Doing so, of course, gave every Senator veto power over essentially every bill, even as the Senate grew in size and the country’s business grew exponentially. The Senate became not the saucer to cool the heats of the House, as George Washington is said to have described it, but an increasingly ineffective anachronism and obstacle to effective governance in a modern representative democracy. The practice of individual holds is just the latest example.
Tuberville is Huring Military Preparedness
Should Sen. Tuberville be given a pass because he is acting within the Senate rule? If others do not like his actions, they should change the rules, right? Wrong. He is using antiquated Senate rules to thwart, not advance, democratic principles. By doing so, he is threatening military preparedness for an essentially unrelated proposition. The holds are keeping the military from placing new leadership in their ranks and positions. As a result, the military may be unable to respond as quickly to immediate threats, such as Iran potentially seizing commercial ships or Chinese aggression against Taiwan. No one who claims to support our military should want to test this.
Therefore, the Senate is at fault for making this possible within its procedures. But so is Tuberville for exploiting what can only be called a loophole to democracy. This is especially true as he does so through means his party, his chamber, and his constituents oppose. Senator Tuberville must drop his hold on military nominations and promotions and stop hurting our national security and institutions.
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John Aldrich specializes in American and comparative politics and behavior, formal theory, and methodology. Books he has authored or co-authored include "Why Parties," "Why Parties Matter," "Before the Convention," and "Change and Continuity in the 2020 Elections." He is past president of the Southern Political Science Association, the Midwest Political Science Association, and the American Political Science Association. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow and is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.