Congress: Throw in the Towel and Declare a Truce

Congress: Throw in the Towel and Declare a Truce

iStockphoto/The Fiscal Times

Yesterday, Senate Republicans blocked the confirmation Richard Cordray to be director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Although he garnered the support of a majority of senators, Cordray’s confirmation failed because Republicans have imposed a 60-vote requirement on virtually all presidential appointments by filibustering even the most routine of them. It requires 60 votes to break a filibuster.

As with virtually all Republican filibusters, the issues involved had nothing whatsoever to do with the qualifications or fitness of Cordray to fulfill the job to which he was nominated. Rather, Republicans were objecting to the very existence of the job itself. In other cases, filibusters appear to have had no reason at all; they were just done because Republicans have the votes and it’s in their interest to make a Democratic administration as dysfunctional as possible.

Longtime Republican congressional aide Mike Lofgren, who retired earlier this year, explained his party’s philosophy in a September 3 commentary:

“A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress's generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.”

Of course, in some ways President Obama has brought this upon himself. He has never seemed to be very keen on getting his appointees confirmed or filling vacancies throughout the federal government. Slots at critical agencies such as the Federal Reserve Board have often been vacant for many months before Obama got around to nominating anyone to fill them. And he has never played hardball with Senate Republicans and made them pay any sort of political price for their obstructionism.

The point is not to
single out one party
for blame, but rather
to suggest that the time
has come for a truce.

To be fair, Republicans are only doing to Democrats exactly what Democrats did in many cases to Republican nominees. According to the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, the era of purely partisan opposition to administration nominees began in 1989, when Democrats defeated former Senator John Tower as defense secretary. Others point to the defeat of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court in 1987 as a pivotal event.

The point is not to single out one party for blame, but rather to suggest that the time has come for a truce. And the upcoming presidential election may be provide the motivation for action.

Republicans feel good about the 2012 election. They think they have the election in the bag if only because an economy as weak as the one we have today has normally spelled doom for incumbent presidents seeking re-election, as was the case with Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H.W. Bush in 1992. Consequently, it would be in the interest of Republicans to make a deal with Democrats on nominations lest the next Republican president be repaid in spades, which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has promised.

Even some Republicans have expressed discomfort with the de facto 60-vote requirement for every Senate-confirmed appointment. One is Tevi Troy, who served as deputy secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services under George W. Bush. In a thoughtful article in the conservative journal National Affairs, he offered a number of suggestions for fixing the confirmation process and breaking the Senate logjam.

First, Troy says, there are far too many positions requiring Senate confirmation. Even under the best of circumstances, it is excessively time-consuming for everyone involved and many positions currently subject to confirmation are not important enough to justify it. They should either be rubber stamped, as the Senate does with most military promotions, or taken out of the Senate’s hands altogether.

Second, nominees should be guaranteed a Senate committee hearing on their nomination within two months. Right now there are great many people in Senate limbo with nominations dating back almost a year, according to Senate data. In the event that a committee failed to act, Troy would create a special Senate committee on confirmations that would be empowered to send nominations to the Senate floor.

Third, the Senate should be required to give nominations that have cleared committee an up or down vote within one month. Troy would abolish the practice of allowing secret “holds” to be put on nominees.

When departments and
agencies don’t have
leaders, when their
budgets are constantly
in flux, they are hard
pressed to do their jobs
with minimal competency.

These are very reasonable proposals that don’t benefit one party or the other. And they would benefit the Senate as an institution, allowing it to spend less time on confirmations—a job that it alone has under the Constitution—and more on other business, such as appropriations bills. According to the Library of Congress, only one appropriations bill for fiscal year 2012 has been enacted thus far. This might not sound so bad except that fiscal year 2012 began on September 1.

Veteran congressional staffer Steve Bell published an article on December 6 complaining that government as a whole doesn’t function very well any more. Congress’s failure to act on presidential nominations and do the basic work of funding the government is a big part. When departments and agencies don’t have leaders, when their budgets are constantly in flux, they are hard pressed to do their jobs with minimal competency.

Some conservatives no doubt agree with Mike Lofgren that this plays into their hands—anything that makes government function incompetently makes it easier to slash spending and abolish government agencies, they think. But that is only because Democrats are in power. The minute there is a Republican in the White House it is absolutely certain that their attitude will reverse 180 degrees.

Therefore, now is the moment when reform is possible. With Republicans foreseeing an end to the Obama administration just 13 months from now, they might be willing to consider at least streamlining the appointments process. While in the short run it will lead to the confirmation of some Obama appointees that Republicans would prefer to block, there is not much harm they can do in a year, they may think. If Republicans do regain the White House, they will be thankful that Democrats won’t be able to block their presidential appointments in retaliation.

Reforming the Senate confirmation process is the low-hanging fruit because everyone can see that it is severely broken. Perhaps if it can be fixed on a bipartisan basis, it will open the door to budget process reform and others as well. The opportunity that political circumstances now presents should not be wasted.