Our country faces a crisis of confirmation.
200 unconfirmed presidential nominees. Over 900 straight days with more than 80 vacancies on the federal bench. Over a dozen unfilled ambassador posts. More than 30 “judicial emergencies” declared by the federal judiciary due to an enormous backlog of cases. The confirmation process for presidential appointments is broken. Delaying tactics and political maneuvers, sometimes by a single member of Congress, have for years now impeded our government’s ability to function, under both Democratic and Republican administrations.
Over and over again, Senate gridlock has stymied the confirmation of well-qualified and often critical candidates, leaving key positions unfilled and our judiciary overworked and understaffed. No Labels – a group of Republicans, Democrats and Independents dedicated to making American government work again – has put forth a solution, one of 12 ideas to fix Congress in its Make Congress Work! action plan.
The proposal, endorsed by President Obama in his State of the Union address and the New York Times, is simple: an up-or-down vote on nominations within 90 days. Give the Senate 90 days, including both committee and floor action, to hold a vote on all judicial and public service nominations. If the nominee’s name is not called up for an up-or-down vote in this approximately three month span, he or she would be confirmed by default.
Since the Republic’s inception, the Senate has had a constitutional responsibility to advise and consent on presidential appointments. Yet our founding fathers would be highly dismayed by the hyperpartisan games played on both sides of the aisle with these appointees. Indeed, Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers of his hope that the Senate would never reject a nominee “where there were not special and strong reasons for the refusal.”
Members on both sides of the aisle have been guilty of using nominees as collateral to extract concessions and score political points for an unrelated agenda. Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama put a hold on 70 nominations in 2010 because, by his own admission, he wanted more federal funds for his state. Likewise, in January Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, without explanation, placed a hold on a federal judicial nominee who had been deemed “unanimously well qualified” by the American Bar Association.
And the problem has only gotten worse. President Reagan saw 86.4% of those he appointed to executive agency positions confirmed in his first year. For President George W. Bush that number was only 73.8%, while at the end of one year the Senate had only confirmed 64.4% of President Obama’s executive agency appointees. The No Labels 90-day up-or-down vote rule is simple and nonpartisan. In our current system, both Democrats and Republicans intentionally delay and obstruct nominees, from Nobel Prize winning economists to highly respected legal scholars. Positions go unfilled, cases in the federal courts go untried and the country pays the price.
Congress has the power to change the rules by which it plays. With a simple rules change, it can make this proposal a reality. After due consideration has been given to a nominee (and 90 days is more than enough time for due consideration) if a presidential appointee can garner a majority of votes in the Senate, that nominee should be confirmed. Let ambassadors further our county’s interests abroad, let federal judges hear our country’s cases and let the executive branch execute our laws.
Let’s pass the 90-day up-or-down-rule and begin to make Congress work.
Former Rep. Davis (R-Va.) is a co-founder of No Labels — a group of Republicans, Democrats and independents dedicated to making America work again — and served as chairman of the National Republican Campaign Committee from 1998 to 2002.