FOR MONTHS Senate Republicans and Democrats have been sparring over which side more severely abused the judicial confirmation process while in control. Democrats howl at the mistreatment of President Clinton's nominees by the Republican Senate. Republicans respond that President Bush's nominees have been victims of an unprecedented escalation. With the close of the 107th Congress, it is now possible to begin comparing the two. During Mr. Clinton's first two years as president he enjoyed a Democratic Senate keen to confirm his nominees, so the best period for comparison is the two years following his reelection in 1996. And for all the rhetoric, the performance of the Republican Senate in that 105th Congress was essentially identical to the Democratic Senate's performance in the Congress just past.
Both confirmed exactly 100 judges. The spread between district court and circuit court nominees was similar, as was the number of vacancies at the end of the Congress and the number of nominees returned without a vote to the president. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) can take credit for doing the same work as his predecessor, Utah Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, in a shorter period of time, because Democrats took over the Senate in midstream. And the number of confirmations during this Congress is significantly greater than the number of confirmations during the time that Mr. Clinton faced a Republican Senate in which Mr. Hatch slowed down confirmations in the run-up to presidential elections. But it seems wrong either to extol or decry Mr. Leahy's stewardship of the process as dramatically different from Mr. Hatch's during the most comparable period. Both moved a respectable number of judges overall and reduced vacancies. But both left relatively large numbers of nominees not acted upon at a time when individual courts were hurting, and both treated individual nominees quite unfairly.
So the problem is systemic, not resting in one or the other party. The answer is to adopt some version of President Bush's proposals for streamlining the nominations process. Mr. Bush suggests changes in Senate rules to ensure timely votes irrespective of who is president or who controls the Senate. He should be willing to make gestures of reconciliation on this subject -- including showing some flexibility on nominations to key courts -- by way of demonstrating his commitment to a new start. But his calls for a reformed process should be heeded before the problems grow still worse.