Issue No. 1 for Barack Obama and the newly enlarged and invigorated Democratic Senate majority? It should be filibuster reform.
Or at least something related, which may not sound as exciting but is actually more important right now: executive branch nomination reform.
Look, the truth is that Republicans have a majority in the House of Representatives, and they almost certainly will hold that majority throughout Barack Obama’s second term. That means the filibuster is more or less irrelevant on legislation. After all, anything that can win the support of a House majority and get a presidential signature will almost certainly be able to attract 60 Senators. Indeed, I don’t think there was any bill in the 112th Congress that died because of the filibuster. We may have legislative stalemate or we may have productive compromises, but either way the difference shouldn’t be the number of votes needed in the Senate.
But the presidency is not just about legislation. It’s also about the executive branch. That’s true for government performance, and it’s also true for making policy.
Yet Obama was slow to fill executive branch positions during his first term, and the Senate constantly threw up roadblocks when he did get around to nominating anyone. It’s a disaster, with real consequences. And it can be fixed.
The first step is dramatically reducing the vetting involved for selecting executive branch officials. Sure, you don’t want crooks. But presidents should stop worrying that something embarrassing will be revealed somewhere down the line; the truth is that, for the most part, that sort of thing becomes a one-day story that no one but the most intense partisans ever hear about. Of course, it can disrupt an agency if a presidential appointee is revealed to have some problem and forced to resign, but that should be weighed against the certain disruption that comes from waiting around for a nominee in the first place.
It’s not just the president’s fault, however; Senate committees have also been far too intrusive and demanding. Again, it’s counterproductive. Senate committees certainly should take their advice and consent responsibilities seriously, but overdoing the job only leads to pressure to give up Senate involvement at all.
The bottom line is that ordinary citizens should not be reluctant to take a federal job because the process of getting appointed and confirmed will be impossibly long and difficult.
And, yes, filibuster reform is needed, too. In my view, there’s simply no need at all for supermajority protection against partisan efforts to block an appointment. Preferably, the Senate would just return to the old norm in which presidents were allowed their choice of personnel, if not their choice of policy. I think it’s perfectly healthy for individual senators or small groups to use the nomination process to extract policy commitments from the administration. There’s a long history of that, and there’s no reason it should be eliminated. What’s new, and dysfunctional, are partisan roadblocks. The solution is easy: Lower the requirement for cloture on executive branch nominations to a simple majority of senators voting; continue to respect holds when they are attempts to bargain over substantive issues; but insist on cloture votes and moving forward if the minority party abuses the hold process to simply roadblock a nominee.
Democrats could achieve this reform with a majority vote. There may be other filibuster reforms they want to add, but this one is a no-brainer. No one really thinks that executive branch nominations should need a supermajority, anyway; the arguments for the filibuster on legislation and judicial nominations, whatever their merit, really don’t apply to secretaries of Commerce or EPA administrators or members of various federal boards.
As I said, this set of reforms isn’t the sort of thing that gets people to march door-to-door in Iowa and New Hampshire in the snow. But it’ll make a difference in helping the government work better, and it’ll make a difference for Barack Obama and the Democrats when it comes to changing what government does in the direction they support. They really should get it done.