Senate’s nuclear war


Not so long ago, the U.S. Senate — which has a constitutional duty to “advise and consent” — generally deferred to the president on executive appointments. There had to be a scandal involved, or the nominee had to be obviously and profoundly unsuited for the post, to be rejected by the Senate.

Judicial nominations have been increasingly politicized in recent years; Democrats held up many of George W. Bush’s nominees. But never before has the Senate minority been as irresponsible as Republican senators are today toward President Obama’s nominees.

The GOP policy can be summed up in two words: obstruct and delay. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s approach to any nomination the President sends to the Hill is to bury it if that’s possible and slow-walk it if that isn’t.

Senate Republicans even delayed the confirmation of Chuck Hagel to head the Department of Defense. Mr. Hagel is a former Republican senator, a war hero, and an expert on military and foreign policy. Such a stunt would have been unimaginable in years past.

This strategy means two things. First, senators waste vast amounts of time on hearings that allow them to posture for the GOP’s hard-right base. Second, President Obama cannot staff his administration fully and adquately.

The third branch of government, the judiciary, also is compromised. Case dockets cannot move because federal courts don’t have enough judges.

This is the opposite of legislating. Forget the disrespect this shows to our institutions. The GOP Senate minority is really shutting down these institutions.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) says he has had enough. He is thinking of changing the rules of the Senate. This would be a highly controversial and bitter fight. Senate Republicans looked at doing it when they had the majority and turned back. Mr. Reid, pushed by his caucus, has considered it several times but decided against it.

Months ago, Senator McConnell promised Senator Reid, essentially, that after a short period of fun and games, he would allow nominations to proceed. But he has not kept his word.

Mr. Reid is talking about changing the number of Senate votes needed to end a filibuster from the current 60 to a bare-majority 51. This rule change has often been called the nuclear option.

Some critics wonder what has taken so long. But Mr. Reid, a senator since 1986, is an institutional conservative.

Mr. Reid says he soon will bring to the Senate floor several White House nominations that have long been in limbo: Ohio’s Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Thomas Perez as Labor secretary, Gina McCarthy to run the Environmental Protection Agency, and Fred Hochberg to lead the Export-Import Bank.

No one has said that any of these people is less than well qualified. Republicans concede that Mr. Cordray has done an exceptional job. But under current conditions, none of these people will ever be confirmed.

Mr. Reid has made clear that if Senate Republicans bury these nominations again, he will, with regret, move to change the Senate’s rules. The fight will be tough, but what is at stake is not partisan gain. It is the ability of the federal government to function.