July 29, 2013

The Senate has a cloture vote scheduled later today for James Comey, President Obama’s pick to head the FBI. But that’s not all. Also up this week: those nominations to the National Labor Relations Board, which were a big part of the showdown over executive-branch nominations  – and nominees for ambassador to the United Nations and head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. 

James Comey
James Comey, the nominee to head the FBI, testifies on Capitol Hill in July. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

That last one is really the first serious test for whether the deal that avoided a nuclear confrontation in the Senate is going to hold for the long term. Todd Jones, if confirmed, would be the first confirmed ATF director ever; since the National Rifle Association succeeded in making the position subject to Senate confirmation, that hasn’t happened. Which means ATF has had acting directors since 2006. 

The original deal was reportedly to secure final votes for seven spots, including the NLRB nominations; in return, Democrats agreed to withdraw two of the original NLRB picks and to hold off on a majority-imposed Senate rules change. Despite some skepticism by filibuster opponents, it was always very likely that the deal would hold through those seven nominations, but it’s a lot harder to see whether it will endure, effectively ending the need for supermajority confirmation of executive-branch nominations.

Even if it holds, the deal still isn’t where the Senate should go on executive-branch nominations. Rather than de facto majority confirmation dependent on a small group of Republicans voting against their party on cloture votes, a far better plan is to just make cloture for executive-branch posts possible by simple majority by rule. The advantage for the Senate can be seen in Comey’s nomination today. Ordinarily (that is, before Republicans decided to impose a 60-vote requirement for confirmation back in January 2009), the confirmation process could be used to really put some pressure on the FBI — and more generally, on the administration. But because the context for every nomination is the quest for 60, Democrats tend to just line up for cloture (because the principle of defeating partisan obstruction is worth upholding!), while the Republican civil-liberties caucus has no leverage since its members are automatic no votes no matter what.

Watch all these cloture votes and especially that ATF position. If that one gets through, the deal is for real.

And remember: This stuff matters. Each nomination is an opportunity for Obama to affect how the government works. Often, regulations and enforcement are more important than the fights in Congress over the details of new laws. The next election won’t turn on what happens in the Senate this week. But what will be determined is how much the 2012 elections actually mattered.