Since taking the reins of the Senate last year, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has striven to portray the upper house as “working again” under his Republican majority after years of partisan gridlock — passing major legislation on transportation, Medicare, drug abuse and more.
But by one measure highlighted by Democrats, the Senate has done remarkably little: An analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service found that, under McConnell (R-Ky.), the current Senate has confirmed the fewest civilian presidential nominees of any Congress in the past 30 years.
Through April 30, 198 of President Obama’s nominees have won confirmation in the 114th Congress, excluding military appointments. Compare that to the 345 nominees confirmed up to that date in the final two years of President George W. Bush’s tenure, or the 286 nominees confirmed in the comparable window under President Bill Clinton.
The analysis was commissioned by Senate Democratic leaders, who have bristled at McConnell’s attempts to portray the Senate as newly well-functioning. Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) blamed repeated Republican filibusters for shutting down the Senate earlier in Obama’s term and says the only reason the Senate is working again is because Democrats are willing to work in the minority to pass bipartisan bills.
“The Republican Senate is making history for all the wrong reasons,” Reid said in a statement. “Since taking the Senate majority, Republicans have doubled down on their commitment to gridlock, confirming the fewest nominations in decades. This is yet another example of Senate Republicans refusing to do their jobs.”
The difficulty of getting Obama’s nominations confirmed was highlighted last week when the Senate acted, after months of delay, to confirm Roberta Jacobson as ambassador to Mexico after a complicated political deal involving three GOP senators.
The report comes as Democrats are making a new push for the confirmation of Obama’s nominee to fill the Supreme Court vacancy caused by Justice Antonin Scalia’s death in February. Republicans have vowed to block Merrick Garland’s confirmation until the next president is elected, and Democrats are seizing on the ascension of Donald Trump to presumptive GOP presidential nominee to undermine that stance.
The current Senate’s record is particularly dim on judicial confirmations. Obama has seen 17 lifetime judges confirmed in the past 16 months, compared to 45 for Bush in the same time frame, 40 for Clinton, and a whopping 82 for George H.W. Bush (including a Supreme Court justice, Clarence Thomas).
But Republicans have countered by pointing out that a similar number of Obama and George W. Bush judicial nominees have been confirmed overall, thanks to a lame duck flurry of confirmations in late 2014, after Democrats lost the Senate.
McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said the Democratic analysis also “counts each nomination, no matter how small, with the same weight as legislation, no matter how large,” and pointed to a Washington Post Fact Checker item that dismissed Reid’s claim in December that this is “the most unproductive Senate in the history of the country.”
“A vote on the deputy undersecretary of commerce is not the same as passing the first multi-year highway bill in a decade,” he said.