Another View: Three months after ‘nuclear option’ finds confirmation limbo

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT

It’s been three months since Majority Leader Harry Reid and his fellow Democrats used the “nuclear option” in the Senate to unilaterally change the rules to limit filibusters on most presidential nominations.

So far, though, there’s been no flood of confirmations. Part of the explanation is continuing GOP obstruction, as unfounded as ever.

But it also turns out that the nuclear option wasn’t the panacea some made it out to be. It remains unacceptably hard to staff the government.

Perhaps the best – or worst – example is the number of ambassadorial nominations languishing in Senate confirmation limbo. Forget the campaign donors President Barack Obama chose to reward with cushy ambassadorships, some of whom are embarrassments.

According to the American Foreign Service Association, 20 career diplomats are awaiting consideration, including the president’s picks to lead embassies in important U.S. ally countries such as Chile and Colombia. Fourteen of them have already gone through their hearings.

Last month, meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry sent Reid an understandable letter of complaint that more than a third of his senior staff still weren’t in place a year into his tenure.

Examples include the able Tom Malinowski, whom Obama tapped in July to be assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor.

Uncontroversial nominees – and even those who rub some legislators the wrong way but are well qualified – should fly through the Senate. Instead, many are stuck waiting for floor time.

When Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., tried to get two uncontroversial judges confirmed by unanimous consent last week, Republicans demanded hours of pointless debate. GOP lawmakers look set to mercilessly attack Debo Adegbile, the president’s talented choice to run the Justice Department’s civil rights team.

In fact, the betting is that Republican senators, still smarting from Reid’s nuclear attack, will force the chamber to waste valuable time on all sorts of nominees.

Even with the filibuster neutered, that could hold up or effectively block many nominees from advancing.

Republicans might have reason to be angry, but exacting revenge on well-qualified, would-be public servants – particularly those who aren’t heading into lifetime judgeships – is toxic for the country and the sort of behavior that led to the deployment of the nuclear option to begin with.

The problem here is bigger than the partisan wars that get all the attention. Too many jobs are filled by presidential appointments, and too many of those require confirmation in the Senate, which only has so much floor time.

That leads to too many layers between the federal bureaucracy and its leadership and to excessive caution from presidents, who are slow to nominate.

Obama is certainly guilty of this; 13 ambassadorships, including the top diplomatic post in Cairo, are simply vacant.

One fix is to slim down the number of presidential appointments, or at least the ones lawmakers must consider. The Senate did a bit of this last year in a bipartisan vote.

Part of the price of going nuclear, though, is that the two parties are exceedingly unlikely to be able to agree on that sort of reform again anytime soon.

If Democratic leaders want to improve things, they can rely only on votes from within their party – and worry that they will further destabilize the institution by going it alone.

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