Let’s break this Se­nate log­jam

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY RON JOHN­SON

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. The writer, a Repub­li­can, rep­re­sents Wis­con­sin in the U.S. Se­nate.

OLIVER CONTRERAS FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

The U.S. Capi­tol.

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