Biden Rule? What rule?!

Elected officials should give it to us straight.

None of these solemn, high-sounding statements that they later have to parse or walk back. Just give us the straight skinny, the truth about why they vote the way they do.

In February 2016, Republican U.S. senators “explained” that they were denying a hearing to President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, because it was a presidential election year, and whoever was elected president that November should be the one to fill the vacancy created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.

They called it the “Biden Rule.”

In 1992, then-Sen. Joe Biden suggested some preconditions before Senate consideration of a Supreme Court nominee should take place in a presidential election year.

Donald Trump was then elected in November 2016. 

It’s now October 2020, just a month before this November’s presidential election. Nevertheless, all but two Republican senators now appear ready to support a hearing for Trump’s nominee to fill the vacancy created by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, and to approve whomever Trump puts up.

Apparently the Biden Rule no longer applies.

GOP senators cite a number of reasons for their change of heart.

For instance, the same party controls both the presidency and the Senate, as opposed to 2016 when there was mixed control. And this is Trump’s first term, not his second. And Democratic senators were unkind during confirmation hearings for Trump’s last nominee, Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Both of Iowa’s senators, Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, say the circumstances are different this year. But their statements back in 2016 left no doubt about their intention.

Grassley (who was chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2016): “A lifetime appointment that could dramatically impact individual freedoms and change the direction of the court for at least a generation is too important to get bogged down in politics. The American people shouldn’t be denied a voice.”

Ernst: “This is not about any particular nominee; rather this is about giving the American people a voice. ... I support Senator Grassley’s decision to exercise the Senate’s constitutional authority to withhold consent to a Supreme Court nomination until the next president is sworn in. We must wait to see what the people say this November, and then our next president will put forward a nominee.”

Nothing about whether the same party controls the Senate and the presidency.

No caveats, exceptions or alternatives of any kind that might make a difference in the future. 

Neither Grassley nor Ernst is an attorney. Iowans have appreciated their plain talk style in the past. But their recent statements sound more like carefully crafted legal briefs.

Grassley is no longer chair of the Judiciary Committee, but both he and Ernst are among the 12 Republicans who serve on it. 

There’s no dispute that the Senate has the constitutional authority to proceed with hearings on a judicial nomination, Biden Rule or no Biden Rule. And President Trump is within his rights to send a nomination to the Senate.

However, straight talk back in 2016 from Republicans would have been refreshing. Something like: “The last thing my supporters want is an Obama nominee sitting on the closely-divided Supreme Court. I could be challenged in a Republican primary if I allow that to happen. I’ll stall instead, and hope that a Republican will be the next president. Here’s something Joe Biden said back in 1992 that might get us over the hump.”

And this year? 

Maybe something like: “I know I said back in 2016 that the Biden Rule should govern this situation. I should have left myself an out. So I guess the best I can do now is to say the Biden Rule no longer holds when the same party has the Senate and the presidency, or find some other difference now from 2016. I’ll try to sell you that that difference today changes the equation.”

Elected officials get in trouble when they try to justify their votes on philosophical grounds. Just lay it out there. 

Voters know politics is at the root of it anyway, even if they don’t like it.

Speaking truth could earn respect, if not approval.

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