All talk, no action?

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Congress Earned Voters' Disrespect

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
Read More.
a | A

The Senate left town last week, its work unfinished. Majority leader Mitch McConnell’s partial government shutdown continues. Among other things, Republicans still refuse to take up many of Barack Obama’s judicial and executive-branch nominations -- a roadblock that makes it hard for the courts and the federal government to work efficiently. 

Jennifer Bendery at HuffPost describes one particularly embarrassing example: The undersecretary of the Treasury in charge of the terrorism and financial crimes division hasn’t been confirmed. Adam Szubin was nominated in mid-April, more than seven months ago. Republicans don’t oppose him. Bendery reports that the Banking Committee chairman, Richard Shelby, praised Szubin at his confirmation hearing. And then? Nothing.

The numbers: The Senate has confirmed 135 Obama nominees (including both executive branch and judicial) so far this year. By contrast, in 2007, when Democrats had just won the Senate, and a Republican president was in his seventh year in office, the Senate had confirmed 234 of George W. Bush’s nominees through the end of November.

Only 10 judges have been confirmed this year, leaving 66 judicial vacancies. The last time judges were confirmed so slowly was in the 1950s, during Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency.

So this isn’t the normal partisan back and forth. This isn’t what Democrats did to Bush, or what Republicans in 1999 did to Bill Clinton, or what Democrats in 1987 did to Ronald Reagan. It’s new, it’s a big deal, and it’s terrible.

I’m a strong supporter of a powerful Senate. If McConnell’s Republicans want to defeat the nominees they believe are poor choices -- judges outside the mainstream, for example -- they have a right to do so. And it’s fine if the Senate uses confirmations as leverage over the executive-branch bureaucracy and as a weapon in fights with the president over policy. Republicans won Senate elections. They’ve earned the influence the Constitution gives them over the confirmation process.

But this isn’t a Senate that is using this influence to govern. It’s a Senate engaged in pure partisan harassment of Obama, and indifferent to the smooth functioning of government. Agencies can’t function at their best without confirmed presidential picks in place; diplomacy suffers when ambassadors aren’t in place. As for the courts, we all know what justice delayed means. 

Obama was elected to office just as legitimately as McConnell and his Republican Senate colleagues were. The norm of giving the president the people he chooses for the executive branch is a good one in most cases.

We’ll never know what the specific consequences are of not filling crucial positions. For example, if the Treasury Department were fully staffed, would it be able to stop money flowing to terrorists to finance a particular attack? It’s grossly irresponsible of McConnell and his colleagues to keep government from doing what they say it should do: operate efficiently and protect its citizens. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net