The Insiders: Some whiskey-talk suggestions for Obama and McConnell

I know President Obama was joking at The White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner when he talked about what a burden it would be for he and Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, to have to sit together for a drink.  The joke also got some follow-up coverage when McConnell played along.

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Mitch McConnell, waiting for his drinking companion

But it doesn’t have to be a joke. It’s not too late for Obama and the Kentucky Republican to sit down and have a drink together. Maybe some good would even come of it.

I’m not naive enough to suggest they would actually solve big problems by getting together, but I do believe there are some areas where a meeting of the minds of the president of the United States and the Senate minority leader could do some good on issues where they might actually agree, or at least where they are not that far apart.

So here’s my list of three items they could easily cover in a one-on-one cocktail hour:

First, they should both bring a copy of Michael Shear’s New York Times article “Politics and Vetting Leave Key U.S. Posts Long Unfilled.” The confirmation process for senior government officials has become too slow and cumbersome. It’s even become a disincentive for good people to offer themselves to government service. The whole process needs to be accelerated, which means the minority party — which is currently the Republican Party in the Senate — should agree to adhere to a tight schedule to vote on the president’s nominees, regardless of which party holds the White House. And the Senate needs to abolish the blatantly unconstitutional process of the anonymous hold on nominations. It’s insulting to taxpayers that one senator can, because of a grudge or on a whim, block the entire Senate from voting on a nomination.

The president also needs to streamline the process for vetting appointees. For a president who has occasionally ruled by fiat, this should not be too hard. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Make potential nominees fill out a reasonable questionnaire, have the FBI check up on a few references, make sure there are no disqualifiers and move on. Congress should agree to accept this streamlined process as proper vetting and not try to score political points as soon as background issues arise.  Every nominee shouldn’t need to be the ideal candidate, per every senator. If senators want the power to handpick nominees, they should run for president. Otherwise, they should ensure nominees are qualified and not conflicted, and then vote their conscience.  Above all, they should — wait for it — actually vote.

Second, the president should agree to start now on his 2015 budget. Obama can make amends for his neglect and non-compliance with existing budget procedure by agreeing that next year, he will submit a budget on time — or even earlier than the February deadline!  And he and McConnell should agree that the budget will be submitted after a reasonably collaborative process. I certainly don’t mean a pre-packaged budget that the Republicans and the White House have agreed to, but rather one that is a product of just enough professional, mutual communication so that the budget isn’t D.O.A., ridiculed, or intended by the president to just score political points. The president can take the lead by submitting a meaningful budget that has a chance of impacting public spending and policy, and McConnell can agree to bring Republicans to the table. Together they can help get America back to regular order with a mature budget process.

Third, Obama and McConnell can insist that the appropriations committees do their work and rationally pass funding bills. Given the president’s limited experience in government, he probably thinks he doesn’t have a role to play in this process. But with the bully pulpit of the White House and any president’s ability to guide some of the work done by his party in Congress, Obama could have a great deal of influence in putting an end to the current state of funding in Washington, where we bounce along from continuing resolution to continuing resolution. It’s no wonder the government operates inefficiently — officials often don’t know how, or even whether, various programs will be funded until the eleventh hour.  That makes it pretty hard to undertake reforms or plan ahead thoughtfully.

Appropriators used to be among the most influential members of Congress. But now, nobody pays attention to most appropriations bills because everybody knows they are not going to pass. Appropriations-committee assignments have become an undesirable chore handed to freshman members of Congress, who have to wait patiently until they can earn better committee assignments. If Congress and the administration dedicated themselves to a true appropriations process each year, they could actually start addressing spending priorities, duplicative or unnecessary programs, or even comprehensive cost-cutting. It’s no surprise we ended up with the indefensible sequester, given the utter absence of real appropriations process during this presidency.

With these three modest reforms, Obama and McConnell could set the stage for Washington to fulfill two of the most basic responsibilities of our government: Confirming senior administration officials and judges; and funding our government in a rational, transparent, and reasonable way.

These are all small-bore initiatives, not a silver bullet to solve all of our nation’s big problems. But as the saying goes, the walk of a thousand miles begins with a single step.  Or in this case, a single cocktail.

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