It’s more clear now than ever before that the top priority for any filibuster reform from Senate Democrats needs to be the elimination of the opportunity for a partisan minority to block executive branch appointments. This comes up (again, and already) because Republicans are apparently ready to gun for two potential nominees that the Obama Administration has floated for key posts: U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice for Secretary of State, and Massachusetts Senator John Kerry for Secretary of Defense.
Look, this is pretty simple: It’s absolutely proper for Senators from both parties to ask tough questions of any nominee. Presidents should have to take into account any potential controversy when they make executive branch nominations. But the government simply can’t function if it becomes impossible to hire people for these jobs. And the current rules – effectively, a 60-vote Senate – mean that a united minority party can, except during very unusual periods, simply block anyone they want. They can invent controversies — see Kevin Drum for why the objections to Rice are phony; the objection to Kerry is apparently that he opposed the Vietnam War, or opposed it the wrong way, or something like that. They can choose to roadblock nominees because they don’t like the government agency she would work for. They can roadblock nominees…well, just because.
There is a straightforward solution: Simple majority votes should be sufficient for confirming executive branch nominations. When the voters elect both a president and a Senate majority of the same party, and the majority is reasonably happy with the president, then the president should be able to get his nominees confirmed.
I continue to believe that holds by a single senator or small groups of senators so that they can press these nominees for specific policy commitments are justified. Does the senator have some local environmental problem, and wants the Secretary of Interior to pay attention to it after she’s confirmed? Sure. The majority leader should give senators time to work that out. But a partisan roadblock? Sorry. Start scheduling floor time, and if the opposition doesn’t have the votes, then they don’t have the votes.
There are legitimate justifications, whether you agree with them or not, for requiring supermajorities on legislation or on lifetime judicial appointments. And when it comes to how executive branch agencies are managed and what policies they follow, there’s no reason for Congress to defer to the presidency: Congress absolutely should use its power of the budget, of investigations and publicity and of legislation to influence what the departments and agencies do. But the first step is getting the nomination process back in order, and the easiest and most obvious step for that is to allow all executive branch nominees to be confirmed by simple majority vote, just as they always were until very recently. Since Republicans won’t allow that by following the old norms, Harry Reid and the Democrats absolutely must take rapid action if the government is to function properly.