Ron Johnson, a Republican, represents Wisconsin in the U.S. Senate.
As of July 22, the Senate has confirmed only 50 of President Trump’s 229 executive nominations. Put another way, less than a month from the August recess, the Senate has confirmed only 22 percent of those nominated to serve in the Trump administration. By the same point in President Barack Obama’s first term, the Senate had confirmed 53 percent of Obama nominations.
This situation is clearly the result of a breakdown in the Senate. The rules for nomination allow any senator to use hours — sometimes days — of precious Senate floor time to debate the confirmation of that nominee. But that rule is being abused, as evidenced by the first six months of the Obama and Trump administrations.
By the first August recess of the Obama administration, only four nominees needed cloture votes — that is, a vote to end the debate on a nominee so that senators can move on to a confirmation vote. Democrats, on the other hand, have required more than 30 Trump nominees to go through this burdensome and time-consuming process. Any president, Republican or Democrat, deserves better.
I have a simple proposal: Change the rules of the Senate to limit debate on sub-Cabinet and lower-court nominees to two hours on the Senate floor. Use Senate committees to vet nominees and report on them to the full Senate, where leadership can assign appropriate members to make the case for or against a nominee in the allotted two hours. Then vote.
For my Republican colleagues who might resist such a change in the Senate rules, let me remind everyone that the nuclear option — changing Senate rules with a bare majority of votes — has already been deployed by former Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). In early 2013, he and his fellow Democrats were frustrated that Senate Republicans were not allowing them to pack the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Reid, unable to bring about an agreement on future confirmations, eventually decided to employ the nuclear option on Nov. 21, 2013 — despite bipartisan reluctance to altering Senate rules.
To gain public support for this unprecedented action, Democrats accused Republicans of obstructing the confirmation of Obama’s nominees. These accusations ignored the fact that five years into Obama’s presidency, 1,560 of his nominees already had been confirmed and only four had been formally blocked. But Reid never let truth get in the way of a good political attack.
Of course, Republicans are not innocent, either. There are many ways to hold up nominees, and both Republicans and Democrats have employed those tactics over the years. In fact, Republicans grew so frustrated with Democrats in 2005 for blocking President George W. Bush’s judicial nominations that they also proposed changing the rules. It was only because of a bipartisan “Gang of 14” opposing the nuclear option that their proposal was never enacted.
But it was Reid who then in 2013 acted and changed the Senate permanently: Now, whenever one party has a bare majority, it can follow the Reid precedent and change the rules with 51 votes. Republicans did so earlier this year to confirm Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch. The Senate’s rules will inevitably be changed again in the future using Reid’s 51-vote precedent.
Regardless of one’s opinion on Reid’s action, the precedent has been set. It cannot be repealed or undone. The post-nuclear Senate is now our reality. It would make sense to at least try to use this precedent and make Washington somewhat less dysfunctional.
The Senate committee process works well with nominations. Candidates are thoroughly vetted by committee members and staff who are well versed on the issues that nominees will be empowered to address. Once a nominee is processed and voted out of committee, it would be sufficient and entirely appropriate to hold an expeditious vote on the Senate floor.
But when it comes to nominations, the number of executive agency positions that must be confirmed — between 1,200 to 1,400 — is absurd. Current Senate rules that allow for one delay after another in the confirmation process are equally so.
Our country is facing enormous challenges. An administration that is denied its nominees will be unfairly and unnecessarily crippled. We should not sit idly by in the post-nuclear world imposed by Reid and accept the dysfunctional confirmation process or allow these significant problems to remain unaddressed.