What it took to confirm John Bryson

Nearly five months ago, President Obama nominated John Bryson, a California utility and energy executive, to be his new Commerce secretary. Bryson has extensive experience in the private and public sectors, is an expert on energy policy, and early in his career, helped create the national environmental group, the Natural Resources Defense Council. He seemed like a wise choice.

Senate Republicans, as is their wont, weren’t pleased. In 2009, Bryson called a cap-and-trade proposal a “moderate, but acceptable bill,” which led to all kinds of consternation. (A year earlier, John McCain had said largely the same thing, though GOP officials like to pretend this didn’t happen.) One Republican senator accused Bryson of being “an environmental extremist,” while a Fox News personality suggested the nominee might be an “eco-terrorist.”

As you might imagine, then, Bryson’s nomination did not effortlessly sail through the chamber.

This week, after a needlessly-long delay, Bryson actually managed to get confirmed, following a 76-to-26 vote on Thursday, giving the president a full Cabinet again. But before we move on, it’s worth remembering how and why Republicans held up this nomination. Matt Yglesias had a good item on this the other day, pointing to the Bryson confirmation process as an example of “how profoundly dysfunctional the American political system has become.”

Recall that Bryson was nominated way back in June. He was nominated for a post that is only ever the subject of political controversy when a Census with redistricting implications is underway. He was nominated at a time of maximum distance from a Census controversy. Not only was it an utterly uncontroversial job, he was an utterly uncontroversial choice — a kind of old-time moderately conservative businessman with some environmentalist leanings.

But Senate Republicans vowed to block him anyway. Not because they had objections to him, but because they wanted unrelated policy concessions. Specifically they wanted ratification of trade agreements that the Obama administration already supported. Since President Obama had already agreed to GOP demands, it was extremely difficult for him to give in to GOP demands. Then Republicans made a new demand that the trade deals couldn’t be ratified unless congress also stopped offering Trade Adjustment Assistance funding. At that point, Bryson was being held hostage to the ratification of trade deals that were being held up by Republicans! So the post languished vacant for months. Then finally the trade deals got signed late last week.

But in the intervening months Bryson had been hanging out there and so various complaints had to be made about him, and now 26 Senators have persuaded themselves that his tenure at the Commerce Department will lead to massive socialism or something.

I’ve written several times about the normalization of extortion politics, but the way in which Senate Republicans held up the Bryson nomination hostage offers a rather mind-numbing example of just how ridiculous GOP tactics can get.