Understandably, both the press and the American public have focused our attention as voters this year on the campaigns to succeed Barack Obama as President of the United States. Yet, the outcome of the parallel struggle for majority control of the United States Senate will have comparable significance in the future course of our lives.
Here is what is at stake for Americans of Color this year.
Elijah Cummings (Courtesy Photo/Facebook)
If, as appears to be the case, there is a massive African American turnout to vote on Nov. 8, Hillary Clinton will be our newly elected President. If, in addition, our impact upon this year’s Senate races is equally favorable, President Clinton will have far greater ability to achieve the legislative victories and judicial appointments that will build upon President Obama’s legacy.
I must also note, however, that if we fail to overcome the opposition and obstruction that we have witnessed in the Republican-led Senate since 2014, gridlock will continue in Washington — and our new President will be forced to fight on the defensive during the next four years.
Under the leadership of Senate Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Republicans currently hold a 54-46 seat majority in the Senate. Although that majority may not seem overwhelming, this difference means that the Republicans hold quasi-veto power over most of what the President wants to accomplish — including critical reform legislation and the President’s appointments to our courts.
We have already witnessed this pattern of partisan obstruction in the refusal of the current Republican Senate Majority to give President Obama’s eminently qualified nominee to the Supreme Court, Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Merrick Garland, either a hearing or a vote.
In my assessment, this total disregard for the importance of a fully functioning Supreme Court (and the constitutional prerogative and duty of America’s first Black President) have amounted to an abrogation of the Senate’s constitutional power and obligation to “advise and consent.”
Viewed in the context of the Senate’s constitutional responsibilities, this blatant disregard for the proper functioning of our government must be viewed as comparable to the stonewalling and obstruction to civil rights reforms that our nation endured more than half a century ago in the early 1960s.
Even those who are philosophically opposed to any modest shift in the prevailing outlook of the Supreme Court should be able to see the danger. Denying any President’s nominee to our highest court even a hearing or an up-or-down vote is so antithetical to our constitutional principles that it raises legitimate concerns about the current Senate majority’s suitability to govern.
Nor should the Senate’s shameful treatment of Judge Garland be seen as the full extent of this current Republican majority’s partisan, constitutional failure.
According to data kept by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, 67 of 673 federal district court judgeships (10 percent) remain vacant due to Senate inaction, nearly twice as many vacancies as at this point in Republican George W. Bush’s presidency. All told, there are 93 federal district and appellate court vacancies today — judgeships that the American People deserve to have filled.
Although these District and Circuit Court nominations have received less public attention than Judge Garland’s, the administration of justice has been weakened across the land. Federal District and Appellate Courts are where the overwhelming majority of civil rights complaints are resolved, as evidenced by the judicial rejection of voter suppression legislation in North Carolina earlier this year.
I emphasize this reality about the administration of justice in our country because, this year, the balance of political forces again makes our active and enthusiastic engagement as voters a decisive factor in our nation’s Senate and House elections — as well as in the choice of our next President.
Here, generally, is how progressive victory can and must be achieved.
If Democratic Senate candidates carry the states where they are heavily favored to win this year, control of the next United States Senate may well depend upon Democratic victories in closer Senate races. Expert commentators cite the Senate campaigns now being concluded in Indiana, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Pennsylvania as being potentially decisive.
Five of these six states have significant minority voting populations — and five of six of these Senate races are currently rated as being “too close to call.”
We have the ability to win these close Senate races on Election Day by our active engagement at levels that equal or surpass our civic participation as voters in 2008 and 2012.
We are in a struggle, and I do not minimize the challenge of overcoming efforts to suppress or otherwise limit our voting power. Yet, I remain convinced that, once again, we can overcome voter suppression and prevail this year.
To echo Dr. King’s 1957 challenge to America as our battle cry for 2016: “Give us the ballot, and we will fill our legislative halls with men of good will and select judges who will do justly and love mercy.”
Give us the ballot and we will exercise this most fundamental civil right — and make a lasting mark upon the quality of all Americans’ lives.
Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.