Norm Ornstein wrote a good column this week for Roll Call pleading for a halt to the GOP practice of blocking executive branch nominations. He makes the point, and I want to underscore this, about how recent all this is. As Ornstein says, there used to be a "norm that a president is entitled to his choices for executive branch posts unless there is some huge and significant problem." Instead of that, we now have two problems: first, that the out-party has traded in "huge and significant problem" for "we can find some quote to take out of context," and, second and even worse, that Republicans have decided to delay executive branch appointments even in cases in which they have no objection at all. What's more, those out-party tactics to slow nominations are piled on to a system already overburdened by far too much vetting.
Why have things come to this? As far as the Republican strategy is concerned, I see three possible reasons. Ornstein suggests that it's about "preventing them from getting into their offices for as long as possible." Kevin Drum counters that it's really about blocking other things: "the main reason for such routine obstruction is simple: it eats up floor time." Me? I think it's more pointless than that; I think it's a combination of outside pressure that craven Republicans are terrified of opposing (seeing the fate of Bob Bennett), and their interpretation of the events of 1993-1994, which they took to be evidence that mindlessly opposing everything was the key to winning the House and Senate.
Basically, I think that this is a mistake all around. . The "floor time" argument is, in my view, overstated; instead of chewing up floor time on low-level nominees, what the Democrats have done is either leave them in limbo or eventually cut deals to bring them up quickly, generally by voice vote. It's a distraction for the Senate majority, yes, but not as far as I can see one that's derailed anything more important. As far as just delaying these nominees from taking their offices for a while, it's hard for me to see much of an advantage to Republicans from that. Certainly not much of an electoral advantage: if the NLRB processes fewer cases, or if regulation writing at some department moves more slowly, that's not going to net Republicans any significant number of votes in November. Jonathan Chait says, "Electoral politics is inherently competitive. In the long run, you can't rely on norms to prevent parties form using the rules to their advantage." But governance is not inherently zero-sum, and the overwhelming number of these delays have much more to do with governance, I think, than with electoral politics.
Ornstein joins many of us in noting that the most significant delays over the last two years have been mostly self-inflicted, with Obama very slow to nominate anyone for several critical positions. Some of this, I think, is strictly Obama's fault. Some of it, however, is structural. So I'll repeat here my call for much less vetting (by the president and Congress) of executive branch nominees, and my suggestion that a commission be appointed to draft new guidelines for streamlining presidential appointments.
Meanwhile, the most direct cure for GOP obstruction is presidential action: the more Obama acts as if getting nominees appointed and confirmed is a priority (and one that he'll use recess appointments for if necessary), the less it's going to be worth it for Republicans to obstruct everyone. It seems, as one would expect, to work: after his first round of recess appointments this spring, Republicans started off by complaining but then quietly cleared most of the noncontroversial selections stuck on the Senate calendar.