February 4, 2012

THIS IS an inauspicious moment to expect lawmakers to yield any partisan weapon. But one thing Congress could do to unclog the federal government is so obvious and requires lawmakers to give up so little, even the most ardent partisan should be able to support it.

Last June, the Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill reducing the number of executive branch positions subject to Senate confirmation. The House of Representatives has yet to act on the legislation.

The bill would cut about 200 government posts from the list of 1,400 that require confirmation — jobs such as public relations officials and technology officers. It would also create a committee to rationalize the many long, redundant and invasive questionnaires that nominees must complete.

If anything, this bill does not go far enough. Senators would still be able to put personal “holds” on the remaining confirmable nominees, distorting government operations to extort concessions from the executive branch. Federal government expert Paul Light recommends slashing the number of political appointees, or, as President Obama proposed in his State of the Union address, giving the Senate a deadline for confirming nominees. Others suggest limiting the use of filibusters on certain appointments. Such reforms, whatever their merits, have no chance in an election year.

This modest bill, on the other hand, seemed on a glide toward approval. But it may encounter turbulence because of Republican anger at Mr. Obama’s recent recess appointments. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) is vowing to block any White House nominee until the president rescinds them. Lawmakers may feel as though they can’t give up any amount of leverage. We — and, we expect, most people — see this fight as evidence that the current confirmation system makes collateral victims of too many would-be public servants. The standoff certainly should not be a predicate for blocking a bill that could lighten the Senate’s workload, improve government operations and still leave lawmakers with plenty of political leverage.

The House should at least allow senators to take the baby steps they have already concluded they can tolerate.