Thursday, October 13, 2011

Hey, Jon Huntsman! Want an Issue?

Jon Huntsman raised one of my favorite issues during the Tuesday debate:
HUNTSMAN: But let's be real about what it takes to get into federal government service these days. Who on Earth from the private sector is ever going to want to give up their privacy and enter government service with the background checks, the financial disclosures, and everything else that serve as tremendous disincentives for good people to get into government?
So what we have today, Charlie, we've got a professional governing class of people on one end and then you've got private- sector people on the other.
ROSE: And so what would you do about that to change that, to attract those kind of people so that they would be willing to serve a cross-section of people from every gender...
HUNTSMAN: Let's get back to what we did a generation or two ago, when we were more open in terms of accommodating people from all backgrounds who wanted to take a little bit of their life and serve in government, and then leave, and go back to what it is they did best, whether on the farm, or whether insurance, or whether business, or whether academia.
Great topic! But a little vague on how we get there.

Fortunately, I have a ready-made program for any candidate who wants to take this problem seriously. There are two parts: massively reduced vetting on the presidential end, and then requiring only a simple majority for confirmation in the Senate.

As I've proposed, the way to get there (at least on the White House side) is to set up a commission designed to recommend some sort of minimal vetting, along with some sort of at least slightly saner conflict-of-interest rules. Note that while some are barred by actual rules (such as Obama's rules against lobbyists), the real problem, as Huntsman -- who has been through a confirmation, so he knows what he's talking about -- says is what happens to the people who fit in those rules. First there's the incredible intrusive vetting system; next, there's the increasingly long wait between when people are first offered the job and when they can start work; and, third, there's a very real possibility that the Senate won't confirm, even in cases where the nomination isn't at all controversial.

Would the Senate consider switching (back) to a simply majority system for nominations? I think it's possible; Senate reform is coming, and it's actually in the Senate's interest to be able to process nominations far more efficiently than they do now. If they retained the ability of single Senators and small groups to still place holds, as I think they should, it might be enough to get them to go along. If not, I'd like to see the president implement as much of his as he can anyway.

I have no idea what Jon Huntsman thinks he's doing as a presidential candidate, but he's obviously not going to win and, as far as I can tell, he's not in the running for a Fox News show, either. Maybe he'll consider taking this up as an issue over the remaining few weeks of his campaign. Hey, it could even be a very mild net plus; after all, it should appeal to both his natural constituency in this campaign (Washingtonians) and, if he pitches it as he did in the debate, to Tea Partiers who can be convinced that Evil Washington Rules are preventing farmers from serving as cabinet secretaries. Go for it, Ambassador!


  1. Nice post. I agree with the overall thrust.

    But I'm not sure I follow how you can arrive at a simple-majority confirmation procedure that also maintains a holds system of any value.

    What value does a hold against a UC to proceed have if a simple majority can end debate on the MTP or if the rules limit debate? The holds only have power when they block UCs on motions to proceed because they are implicitly threats of filibusters.

    But if you take away that filibuster threat (by, for example, making the MTP to a nomination non-debatable (or debate-limited) and capping total hours of debate on nominations), then there's no advantage to the hold, no?

  2. I don't understand how simplifying the vetting process would help anything. The out-party still has a strong incentive to unearth any potentially controversial tidbits from the nominee's past. A reduced vetting process would just ensure that those efforts would be successful more often. Result: fewer confirmed nominees.

    And this is true even if you return to majority-vote confirmations. (Incidentally, if each Senator still has the unchecked right to place a "hold" on any nomination, then we're no closer to a majority-rules system then we are now.)

    it's actually in the Senate's interest to be able to process nominations far more efficiently than they do now.

    Uh... since when do Senators care about what's "in the Senate's interest"? They care about what's in their party's interest; what's in their constituents' interest; what's in their own personal interest. If Senators gave a single solitary fuck about what's in the best interest of the body itself, they sure haven't shown that in the past decade or so.

  3. Also, isn't there a role for the media here?

    Does our scandal-obsessed media bear some of the blame? If an undocumented alien is paid under the table in a forest of good reporters, does it make a sound?

    I don't know what would happen if the media wasn't chomping at the bit to do the out-party's dirty work for them. Maybe, if the media weren't so scandal-obsessed, interest groups would get the word out to people, and they'd reflect the pressure back to Congress, and the same results would obtain. Maybe party networks (in the absence of a scandal-obsessed media) would coordinate to make the scandal a talking point for their party, and therefore, a big deal. Or maybe gumdrops would fall from the sky and we'd appoint qualified public servants.

    I guess the question is how much agency the media has in this process.

  4. This is a solution looking for a problem.

    You can dump the filibuster, and I'm sorta meh on that one. It's sorta like Obama's jobs bill... the Senate Left didn't want it... but they'd rather that the R's dispose of it, and the filibuster permits this. Everybody seems to like it, for that reason.

    Same with nominees. If you can't get to 60 on a nominee, it probably means the president's own party is split at minimum, and he needs to select somebody else.

    No need for commissions, and it isn't intrusive for people to answer questionnaires and do financial disclosure, so Huntsman is just whining to no good purpose on that score.

    I wouldn't be planning on any Senate "reform", by the way. In January 2013, the Senate rules will come up for vote, and I'll bet you a dollar they get passed as is, no matter if 6-8 raving Tea Partyers are freshly elected to the body. The old guard is still the old guard, and they like them rules just like they are.

  5. Matt and Andrew,

    I do believe that a majority vote with holds system can work -- after all, it's what they basically had from when holds started (IIRC early 1960s?) through, more or less, 2008. Holds would have to be managed aggressively, but I don't think that's impossible at all. Basically, my sense is that if Senator Smith wants to work out something for Interest X in her state before allowing the nomination to move forward, then the Majority Leader should give her the chance to do so. That's basically what holds are supposed to be for. But if it's "I won't allow anyone to come up until major legislation is overturned," then tough luck, the nomination goes to the floor.

    IMO, that is in fact a manageable system.

    (I'd probably retain the cloture system but just reduce the requirement to a simple majority for exec branch nominations; that gives the minority at least the option of forcing two votes + postcloture time, which I think is plenty for protest (and even enough to kill some nominations in some circumstances).

  6. As someone who did some stuff with Huntsman back in USTR days, I think he is talking much further down the food chain. In other words, not people who get senate confimations.

    Just getting your top 5 people into an office can be a year long hassle.

    I'd remove senate confirmation for everything below cabinet secretary and indpendent agencies.

  7. Jon:

    I don't see it with the holds. It worked reasonably well prior to 2008 because the norms of the institution prevented Members from fully exerting their rights. Those norms are falling apart. Sure, you can ban off-the-floor holds and force people to come down to the floor and object to UCs (or get a proxy member to do it), but unless you make the key motions non-debatable or reduce cloture to a majority, you aren't really changing anything. Once once you do either of those things, the holds will largely be worthless.

    I agree that reducing cloture to a majority would be helpful for exec. noms while still allowing the minority to drag it out and air their greivances, without actually blocking it. (although now that Reid has shown the willingness to use the non-debatable post-cloture point of order appeal to tighten the post-cloture rules by bare majority, it looks like all of post-cloture debate time is in the cross-hairs for pairing down).

  8. Matt,

    You say if they "reduce cloture to a majority...holds will largely be worthless." Why? Holds certainly weren't worthless during the 111th Congress when Dems had the votes for cloture -- indeed, holds weren't and aren't worthless even on uncontroversial nominations that eventually get approved 100-0 or 99-1.

    An individual or small-group hold doesn't have strength because it could actually prevent something; it has strength because of the threat to chew up time. That would still be true if it took a simple majority for cloture. No?


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