‘Badly broken’

‘BADLY BROKEN’…. The negative response among lawmakers to President Obama’s recess appointments yesterday were hardly unexpected. Republicans complained because that’s what they do, and at least one Senate Democrat complained, apparently motivated by institutional pride.

When White House reporters pressed Robert Gibbs on this yesterday, asking why it was necessary to appoint Dr. Don Berwick to lead the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the press secretary noted the entire nominating process has broken down, which in turn forces the president’s hand.

…I think it’s the type of politics that demonstrates just how badly broken the appointments process is. And the President is going to install people that need to be installed for this government to run effective and efficiently. In this case, because the appointments process is clearly broken, he did so through a recess appointment.”

Putting aside the merits of the Berwick move, can anyone come up with a credible reason to disagree with Gibbs’ criticism of the system? Can anyone seriously look at the existing process and think it’s an effective way for an advanced democratic government to operate in the 21st century?

A civics textbook would make it seem simple — the president chooses a nominee for a government post, and the nomination goes to the Senate. A relevant committee holds a hearing and considers the nominee’s qualifications. From there, the nomination goes to the Senate floor, and if a majority approves, he or she can get to work on the country’s behalf.

And that was a fairly straightforward system for most of American history. But as we’ve seen of late, that process has completely fallen apart. Some of this has to do with the Senate having confirmation authority over far too many administrative positions, but most of it has to do with blind, petty obstructionism — holds and/or filibusters that can delay consideration of nominees for months, and in some cases, well over a year.

In April, the Senate voted to confirm Lael Brainard to be an Under Secretary of the Treasury for international affairs — a genuinely important post, especially in the midst of a global financial crisis. Her background and qualifications are impeccable, but her nomination was delayed for 13 months — because Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) was unhappy with administration enforcement of prohibitions on internet gambling.

In an even more infamous example, a month later, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) blocked votes on Pentagon officials because he wanted to be paid off in pork.

Fiascos like these aren’t rare at all — they’ve been entirely common for the last year and a half.

As regular readers know, I’m not a big fan of recess appointments, no matter which president is making them. But given the enormous number of nominees waiting for confirmation, and endless Republican tactics to undermine government effectiveness, I just don’t see how the White House has any choice.

If the GOP doesn’t like it, they can start allowing up-or-down votes on pending nominees.