Yesterday's rumors that Secretary of Treasury Geithner was on his way out seem, for now at least, to have been knocked down some, so perhaps he's staying put after all. But the rumors yielded a lot of fun yesterday afternoon based on the premise that Republicans would certainly obstruct any replacement, along with an interesting argument from Kevin Drum dissenting:
Our nomination process is indeed broken, but it's broken only for the less visible class of appointments. This is important: Republicans have routinely held up circuit court judges, ambassadors to medium sized countries, agency heads, deputy and assistant cabinet positions, and so on. But they haven't held up Supreme Court appointments, cabinet secretaries, or other highly visible appointments such as Fed chairman, head of the CIA, or chairman of the Joint Chiefs. These kinds of nominations get too much attention, and that's exactly what Republicans don't want.
I'm not really convinced. It's true that two nominations, for CIA and Defense, just sailed through the Senate. Killing Osama bin Laden will do that for you. But the only other cabinet appointment this year, John Bryson for Commerce, is already bogged down in the Senate.
Before that, sure, a lot of high-profile appointments were confirmed. But was that because Republicans didn't want to obstruct, or because those were the ones that the president and the Senate leadership really cared about? After all, the Democrats had the votes to confirm almost everyone during the 111th Congress. Even when they had only 58 or 59 Senators, it was a question of finding just one or two Republicans willing to support confirmation, or at least cloture on a nomination. I'm not sure whether that tells us anything about high-profile nominations now, with the Democrats needing at least seven Republicans to get to sixty. Of course, it's possible that Republicans will allow nominations to pass with only a simple majority, and that has happened a couple of times this year (after never happening in the previous two years). Will it happen the next time a high-profile nomination is brought before the Senate? I don't think we know.
I guess the question at the root of this is the GOP strategy. If Drum is correct, then the strategy is primarily to impede the functioning of government, or at least to obstruct efforts by the Democrats to govern. If that's the main goal, then it makes some sense to use tactics that preserve the possibility of a lot of under-the-radar obstruction, even at the cost of letting some major ones through. However, I'm pretty skeptical that most Republicans really care about policy implementation. I think it's more likely that they're just responding to a fear that if they don't oppose everything Barack Obama does, they'll be threatened in primary elections. And I think they're a lot more worried about that this year than they were back when most of the cabinet appointments were confirmed, and more than they were when Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan were nominated -- and don't forget, most Republicans opposed both of these nominations. And now, they have the votes to do something about it. Put it all together, and I'm a lot less optimistic than Drum is about the prospects of any future high-profile nominees.