Kudos to Barack Obama for raising the critical issue of nomination reform last night. The president said:

A simple majority is no longer enough to get anything — even routine business — passed through the Senate. Neither party has been blameless in these tactics. Now both parties should put an end to it. For starters, I ask the Senate to pass a rule that all judicial and public service nominations receive a simple up or down vote within 90 days.

Senator Harry Reid has endorsed Obama’s push, and I’m glad Obama brought it up. The system for nominating and confirming federal judges and executive branch officials is totally broken, and one of the problems over the last three years has been presidential inattention. If Barack Obama doesn’t care enough about fully staffing executive branch agencies and the federal bench to make a major fuss when Republicans break new records for daily obstruction, then there’s not going to be any change. He recently began fighting back with his recess appointments; now he’s raising the question of how Senate procedure can be changed to make it work better. That’s a good sign.

I’m not as enthusiastic about the specific reform Obama has embraced — a simple majority vote for all nominees within 90 days. If enacted, which it won’t be, it would tilt power too far toward the White House. There’s a tendency of reformers to embrace simple majoritarianism, but the United States is stronger because of separated institutions sharing powers — including a strong and independent Congress. On executive branch nominations, I do think that simple majorities should be enough. However, there are strong reasons for individual Senators to be able put “holds” on nominations as a tool for pressing their districts’ particular needs. I’d leave holds alone, provided they are placed by individuals or small groups of Senators and are part of negotiations over specific, discrete issues. Parties, however, should not be able to use holds to block nominations unless they have the votes to defeat them outright.

As far as judicial nominations are concerned, I have no problem with rules that empower intense minorities to block them — provided we’re not talking about just a handful of senators. These are lifetime appointments, so preserving minority rights is reasonable.

It’s not just the Senate that needs reform, either. Recent presidents have made the vetting process before nomination far too lengthy and far too intrusive. Barack Obama has perhaps the worst offender, and as a result he’s repeatedly delayed making any nomination at all for many key posts. How about a presidential commission dedicated to streamlining the vetting process?

I’m happy to see Obama step up on this issue. Now the test will be whether he presses it over the course of the year. If the government is going to function well, he’ll have to.