The ineptitude of the Senate has come into clearer focus than usual recently. In addition to the usual backlog of judicial appointee confirmations, several very significant economic posts remain vacant. Three out of seven Federal Reserve governor posts sit in the queue, though President Obama nominated three economists five months ago. This could have serious economic ramifications if a financial emergency hits.
Moreover, the Obama administration chose to bring in Elizabeth Warren as "Assistant to the President and Special Advisor to the Treasury Secretary," instead of just nominating her as the Consumer Financial Credit Bureau's chief. Even if her confirmation was uncontroversial, who knows when the Senate would get around to providing its stamp of approval? How do you remedy this problem? Require that the Senate acts promptly.
Of course, that's easier said than done. Why would the Congress want hold itself to a higher standard? What does it get out of the deal?
Yale professor Bruce Ackerman offers a specific proposal in a Wall Street Journal op-ed today. He notes that the President has gained more power by appointing czars and other high-level officials without Congressional approval -- like Warren. He sees a way to solve the problems of the President overstepping his bounds and the delay in Senate confirmations. He writes:
Americans can break through this impasse if both sides negotiate a "grand bargain." Here is the deal: The Senate should change its rules to require an up-or-down vote on all executive branch appointments within 60 days. In exchange, the president should sign legislation to require Senate approval of all senior White House appointments. By reaching this agreement, the president regains the powers to govern effectively and the Senate regains its authority to approve all major appointments--regardless of their location in the executive branch.
This idea could work, since each side gets something and loses something. The President will no longer have quite as much power to appoint people to important posts without Congressional approval, but he will have them confirmed by the Senate in a specified amount of time. The Senate will have to prioritize appointments instead of focusing on new legislation instead, but its acquiescence on high-level executive posts would be more important going forward.
At some point, the government must decide what it wants. Does it want the executive branch to have more power, and cut out the Senate's influence? Or should the Senate continue to have a say on important executive branch appointments? The U.S. Constitution certainly suggests the latter, as it requires confirmation of cabinet officers. But non-cabinet, by highly significant, appointments in today's bigger and more complicated federal government lie in a gray area so escape this standard. Unfortunately, the Senate isn't helping its own cause by failing to confirm nominees in a timely manner.