Holds

HOLDS…. Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) explained over the weekend that he’s put a hold on Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein’s nomination to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Sunstein easily cleared the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in May, but Chambliss doesn’t want him to get a floor vote, because of something Sunstein once wrote about animal rights.

If this were just an isolated delay, it would hardly be cause for concern. It’s not. This is, regrettably, quickly becoming the norm.

In a burst of activity before adjourning on Friday for a two-week recess, the Senate confirmed 12 nominees for important positions in the Obama administration. That is the good news. Unfortunately, there are still 21 nominees for important posts awaiting confirmation.

Most of the stranded nominees have long since had hearings and majority approval by Senate committees and meetings with lawmakers. None of the nominees have been tainted by scandal or had their core competence questioned. And yet, they remain unconfirmed — one for more than three months and several others for more than a month — mainly because of holds, often anonymous and unexplained, by Republican senators.

Holds are effectively a filibuster, requiring 60 votes to overcome. Used legitimately, they can buy time to clear up unanswered questions about a nominee’s qualifications. But the current widespread holds of uncertain duration are obstructionism. Writing in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, Norman Ornstein, a Congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said the mass delays are “damaging the fabric of governance.”

That may sound hyperbolic, but Ornstein makes a very compelling case that good governance is undermined by these “capricious” holds. He explained, “We need political appointees in place to make decisions and sign off on policies. Of course, there are talented career executives. But they often lack the authority, or the will, to make tough or controversial decisions that are not normally in their purview. Some of the delays in implementation of the stimulus package have undoubtedly occurred because no official able to expedite the normal vetting process for projects or grants has been in place to do so. It is also important to keep in mind that incoming officials cannot start operating at 100 percent the day they are sworn in; it takes a while to learn the ropes and the procedures, so these delays will be even longer and more damaging than they appear.”

I’d just add that while the holds are themselves frustrating, I’m not even sure why the Senate has to confirm all of these officials anyway.

Regardless, there was at least some progress last week, with Harold Koh’s confirmation. It’d be even more encouraging if Dawn Johnsen (OLC) and Robert Groves (Census Bureau) could overcome holds and get up-or-down votes, too.