January 10, 2013

First Susan Rice. Then Chuck Hagel. Now Jack Lew. 

Once upon a time, a norm existed that presidents had right to choose the people they wanted to staff the executive branch. Once upon a time? I mean — from the beginning of the republic right up to January 2009. Oh, Senators could and did use the nomination to affect policy — both individual Senators and, at times, the partisan opposition would demand specific policy commitments before confirming nominees. 

But what’s happened since Barack Obama took office is far, far, off the scale of any of that. And because it’s been accompanied by the use of the filibuster — the sudden demand for a 60 vote Senate on executive branch nominations — it’s entirely dysfunctional. 

We now have Jeff Sessions attacking Jack Lew for — get this — lack of “gravitas.” Not drinking too much, or violating obscure laws, but…well, Sessions just doesn’t like the cut of his jib, or something like that. Or, as Kevin Drum figures, it’s just that Lew insists on using real math during budget negotiations.

All this does build the case for Senate reform. As I’ve been saying, there’s just no good reason not to change the rules to have simple majority approval of executive branch nominees. But that won’t solve the problem. After all, imagine if Republicans had done a bit better in the 2010 and 2012 elections, giving them a slim Senate majority today. If so, they would have been able to simply vote down dozens and dozens of nominations. Senate reform, in other words, would not fix the problem of knee-jerk opposition to presidential executive branch nominees. 

In other words, the real problem isn’t Senate rules (as much as they should be changed); it’s the Republican Party, busting through norms for the sake of making it very difficult for the government to function well. And alas, although some have done a good job of describing this disease (such as Tom Mann and Norm Ornstein), no one yet has a cure.