Break the Senate’s nomination logjam

Some of Congress’s most bruising battles today are not about what you might expect — taxes, deficit spending or energy policy. They’re about the Senate’s constitutional responsibility to advise and consent to presidential appointments.

The public never hears about most of these political confrontations because they happen behind the scenes. But tactics delay the filling of key positions in the federal government, on the federal bench and in diplomacy.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, has pointed out that, 18 months into President Barack Obama’s term, 25 percent of his nominees are still awaiting confirmation by the divided Senate. “This is not an aberration,” Lieberman said.

In March 2010, the president himself complained. He had sent 217 nominees to the Senate, but 77 who had cleared the appropriate committees were still waiting confirmation. Forty-four had been waiting more than two months to get to work.

After Obama’s first 100 days in office, only 14 percent of the positions needing confirmation were filled.

Obama, like previous presidents, tried to work around such delays by using an antiquated, horse-and-buggy-days provision that enables him to make appointments when the Senate is in recess — which happens frequently. This authority was intended to allow presidents to fill key positions in emergencies when travel to the nation’s capital was slow.

The delays might be more understandable if the appointment were being held up because of the nominees’ qualifications, character or background. Too often, however, that is not the case.

Sometimes nominations are held hostage by individual senators or the minority party to win concessions from the administration or the Senate leadership — or just to score political points.

In 2010, for example, more than 70 presidential nominations were corralled by a lone lawmaker, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), who wanted more federal funds guaranteed for his state. But these delays are not always caused by the political party opposing the president. They are sometimes bargaining chips for senators in the president’s own party.

There is a simple way to break up this unnecessary, and potentially costly, confirmation logjam: Give the Senate 90 days to vote on a nominee — to confirm or reject the president’s choice. If there is no vote by then, the nomination would be considered confirmed.

The 90-day up-or-down vote rule is one of a dozen proposals to Make Congress Work in the agenda of the citizen-based congressional reform organization No Labels.

Other advise-and-consent reforms are being seriously considered by some senators uncomfortable with the chaos caused by these delays. One would reduce by roughly 200 the number of federal government positions requiring formal Senate action. Others would reduce some of the paperwork and vetting required, especially for lower-level positions.

Both, of course, would help. But regardless of the number of nominees required to be cleared by the Senate, the ideal situation would be to provide 90 days, or three months, to complete the paperwork, committee hearings and floor vote. That’s more than enough time to determine whether a nominee is suitable.

And if the Senate cannot make that deadline — the nominee should be able to go to work for the American people anyway.

Former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) is a co-founder of No Labels — a group of Republicans, Democrats and independents dedicated to making government work again — and served as chairman of the National Republican Campaign Committee from 1998 to 2002.


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