The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion With hundreds of nominees to confirm, the Senate doesn’t deserve Thanksgiving break

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Oct. 19. (Stefani Reynolds for The Washington Post)
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While the rest of us have turkey with friends and family, the Senate should stay in Washington and do its job — specifically, the job of advice and consent prescribed in the Constitution.

If the senators wanted to know whom to thank for ruining their vacation, they could start with the junior member from Texas, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, who is doing more than anyone to keep them from doing that job.

Even as he approaches his first anniversary in office, President Biden is miles away from having an administration in place. Few ambassadors have been confirmed. Few chief financial officers are in place. With hundreds of billions of dollars about to go out in infrastructure grants, there’s no controller at the Office of Management and Budget. Key positions across every department are empty.

At this rate, Biden is likely to be presiding over a dangerously unstaffed administration even halfway into his term. If Republicans gain a Senate majority in the 2022 election, he’s then likely to go an entire term without anything close to a full government in place.

This is crazy, and dangerous, and self-destructive. And Cruz is not the only culprit.

The United States allows a new president to fire and replace about 4,000 officials. Other democracies install a relative handful of political appointees, who are expected to steer a professional civil service. Imagine a big company that fired its 4,000 top executives every four or even eight years; you’d be crazy to buy its stock.

To make matters worse, roughly 1,200 of those 4,000 need Senate confirmation. The Post and the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service are tracking 802 of the most important of those 1,200 — and so far only 189 people have been confirmed and begun work.

Think about that: We’re approaching the end of Biden’s first year, and less than one-quarter of his leadership team is in place. This is no way to run a government.

There are multiple reasons. Biden has nominated just 432 people for those 802 positions. Before and after nomination, the vetting process can take months. And then, even if a nominee has the full backing of the relevant Senate committee, a single senator can gum up the works.

Which is where Cruz comes in. He is blocking more than 40 State Department nominees, including most ambassadors.

Cruz at least has a policy objective; he is holding the appointees hostage, trying to force the administration to oppose a natural gas pipeline being built from Russia to Germany.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), by contrast, has joined in the hostage-taking with no serious purpose. After the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, he vowed to block all nominees to national security positions until the secretaries of state and defense resigned.

Not to be outdone, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) announced last week that he would put a hold on Biden’s nominee to be ambassador to China, the veteran diplomat Nicholas Burns. Rubio pronounced that Burns fails “to understand the threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party.”

You may ask: How can one, or even two or three, senators block the confirmation of a well-qualified nominee who enjoys support of a majority of the Senate? How can Cruz single-handedly prevent Biden from sending ambassadors to crucial allied states such as Japan, France and Germany?

He can’t. But under Senate rules, he can force Majority Leader Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to spend hours debating and voting on each one. And Schumer has a few other things on his mind: If the Senate doesn’t pass some kind of budget soon, the government will shut down. If it doesn’t raise the debt ceiling, the government will default. A defense authorization, the Build Back Better bill and nominees for lifetime judgeships are pending. So he would rather not devote floor time to confirming one administration official after another who, ordinarily, would be approved in quick votes, by unanimous consent.

Well, then: Don’t go home for Thanksgiving. Of course senators would resent being kept in Washington. They want to do what senators do when they have time off: Campaign. Raise money. Maybe even spend time with their families.

But with 231 nominations pending in the Senate, they haven’t earned the time away. If Schumer told them they had to stay in town and work around-the-clock, the magic of peer pressure might begin to wear on the obstructionists. Americans might begin to get the government they’re entitled to.

I know — this isn’t going to happen. Everyone has already made plane reservations and cranberry sauce. But Schumer at least should say: If the obstruction doesn’t ease up, nobody’s going home for Christmas.

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