Weakening America: Mitch McConnell Shows How

More
One man's objection leaves 80 posts vacant

mcconnell-mitch.jpg

Depressed about how hard it is to get first-rate people into federal jobs, so they're ready to handle emergencies like the BP oil disaster? Wondering if our systems of self-government really are up to the challenges of the moment? Curious about whether people who complain about Senate obstructionism and tyranny-of-the-minority are exaggerating?

Consider the works of Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-KY (below), on the Senate floor 36 hours ago.

As you may have heard elsewhere, the Obama Administration has been relatively slow in vetting and choosing nominees for many of its important posts -- but then has encountered extreme slowness from the Senate in approving the appointments once they get made. If you go to this White House site, you'll find a searchable, sortable list of all 820+ nominations and appointments made so far in the Administration; about 240 have not even come up for a Senate vote. If you go to this U.S. Senate site and click on the link for "Executive Calendar," you'll get a long PDF showing in its "nominations" section the scores and scores of people who have come through committees but not received a vote on the Senate floor. (Direct link to the PDF here.)

On Thursday afternoon, just before its Memorial Day recess, the Senate had planned to consider about 80 of these nominations as a group. They all had been through financial and security vetting; they had been through committee consideration; they were headed for jobs that in many cases now stood vacant; they were ready to go. Sen. Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, moved for approval by unanimous consent, apparently believing that a deal to clear out the huge backlog had been struck. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, begged to differ. He was still sore about the recess appointment of Craig Becker to the National Labor Relations Board. Therefore he wouldn't agree to the en-bloc vote. As he put it:

Unfortunately, we are snagged over one particular nomination which has already been defeated by the Senate, and that was the nomination of Craig Becker to be on the NLRB. The President then recessed Mr. Becker and recessed a Democratic nomination to the NLRB but not a Republican nominee to the NLRB. There is a fundamental lack of equity and fairness involved, and that has been a significant hindrance in coming to a consent agreement.

Fundamental lack of equity and fairness, indeed. Among other points, the nomination was not "defeated" by the Senate; the Democrats couldn't get the 60 votes to break a filibuster, which is different. After the jump, the extended exchange between McConnell and Harkin, which ends with a remarkable peroration by Harkin on what "fairness" has come to mean. For now, the comments of one of the people who had been scheduled for block approval and was ready immediately to head off to her job. (I call this nominee "her" without implying anything about her real identity or gender.)

This person is the nominee for a significant though not household-name international role. The process of matching her with this job was underway by the time Obama took office 17 months ago. She had become the Administration's internal pick by about a year ago, and then spent most of last fall and winter in the vetting process for security-clearance and financial background (the latter requiring her to sell any holdings that might conflict with her new responsibilities). By early this year, that process was finished, and her nomination was officially announced. She and her family got their belongings ready, considered what to do with their house in America -- and began the long wait.

It's bad to leave so much governmental and diplomatic leadership vacant for so long the beginning of each administration—and worse to allow a process that makes talented people think, "Why would I ever want to go through that?"

Earlier this year she appeared before a Senate subcommittee, did well, and got their support. Then her nomination joined the big backlog on the Senate's Executive Calendar. The Administration's team thought that the skids had been greased for bloc-approval of this nominee and 80 others this week. She was all set -- nearly a year and a half into the Administration -- to go through the formal swearing-in procedures and head to her assignment, before the interim appointee had to leave and before an important overseas event. But Mitch McConnell said it would not be so.

"I'm about as well positioned to handle this as anybody," the nominee told me this morning. "I don't have kids in school, I'm self employed, I can simply keep receiving briefings and working on the local dialects. But is it any wonder why people don't want to take these jobs when they get dicked around like this? I consider myself a patient person. But this is turning into a test of how long you can wait without going crazy."

The next chance for consideration is when the Senate returns on June 7, but there is no guarantee that Mitch McConnell's grievance will be resolved by then. In July, the Senate goes on recess again. Then everything shifts into slo-mo for the mid-term elections.

Let's be clear about the complaint here: Yes, people endure worse hardships than being made to wait for Senate confirmation for a fancy job. "I still tell myself this will be worth it in the end, assuming it ends," the nominee said. But it is bad for America to leave so much of its governmental and diplomatic leadership vacant for months or years at the beginning of each administration -- and it's worse, in the long run, to allow a process that makes many talented people think, Why would I ever want to go through that? Why would I want to spend half a year on the financial and security vetting, during which time I was not supposed even to tell my friends I was being considered; and then another half-year being ready to switch from my normal life to a new role somewhere else, but not knowing when that would happen, if ever?

Mitch McConnell objects to Craig Becker's role on the NLRB? Fine. Let him make his case. But can we stand a system that allows him to gum up the whole rest of the government at his whim? Rule by laws, not men, is supposed to be the idea here. For now the main countervailing force is to put a spotlight on the petulant men behaving this way.

After the jump, Tom Harkin's exchange with McConnell about "fairness and equity."


Here is the full exchange on the Senate floor Thursday between Tom Harkin and Mitch McConnell about an en-bloc approval of 80+ backlogged nominees. I am including the whole thing so there is no doubt about context, but I've highlighted the clinching part of Harkin's argument near the end. It's available at this site from the GPO, though the file format can be tricky.

Mr. HARKIN. Mr. President, on the Executive Calendar, I ask unanimous consent the Senate proceed to executive session to consider en bloc Executive Calendar Nos. 427, 493, 494, 688, 500, 501, 521, 556, 581, 588, 589, and a number of others that the minority, I am sure, is aware of, and it includes all nominations on the Secretary's desk in the Air Force, Army, Foreign Service, Marine Corps and Navy--these are military people waiting to get their increases in rank. They have all been cleared and they need to be cleared so they can get their increases in rank--that the nominations be confirmed en bloc, the motions to reconsider be laid on the table en bloc, that no further motions be in order, that any statements relating to the nominations be printed in the Record, that the President be immediately notified of the Senate's action and the Senate resume legislative session.

These are nominees, as I said. First of all, they are military people waiting for their increase in rank. But it is also people such as Brian Hayes, a member of the NLRB; Mark Pearce, member of the NLRB, et cetera, et cetera.

Craig Becker, member of the NLRB; Anthony Coscia, Amtrak board of directors; Mark Rosekind, member of the NTSB. Here is David Lopez, general counsel of the EEOC. Here is Michael Punke, Deputy U.S. Trade Representative; Islam Siddiqui, Chief Ag Negotiator for the U.S. Trade Representative; Jeffrey Moreland, director of Amtrak; Carolyn Radelet, Deputy Director of the Peace Corps; Lana Pollack, Commissioner of U.S. International Joint Commission for the U.S. and Canada. And there are a number of others. I will not go through them all. They are a number of people who need to be in place to make our government work and run. That is who we are trying to ask unanimous consent that we can get them confirmed.

The PRESIDING OFFICER. Is there objection?

Mr. McCONNELL. Mr. President, I object.

The PRESIDING OFFICER. Objection is heard. The Republican leader.

Mr. McCONNELL. Mr. President, I would say to my good friend from Iowa, the majority leader and I have been working on a package of nominations. Unfortunately, we are snagged over one particular nomination which has already been defeated by the Senate, and that was the nomination of Craig Becker to be on the NLRB. The President then recessed Mr. Becker and recessed a Democratic nomination to the NLRB but not a Republican nominee to theNLRB. There is a fundamental lack of equity and fairness involved, and that has been a significant hindrance in coming to a consent agreement.

Obviously, before we leave we will clear the military nominations. Those are really not in dispute. But typically what happens here before a recess, the majority leader and I get together and we try to work out as many of these as we can. To just clear the whole calendar involves, in addition, clearing judges who just got out of committee this week. We have a way that we sequence those who have been acceptable to both sides.

In short, I have not seen every single name on the list of the Senator from Iowa, but it is simply not the way we are going to go forward, certainly not this evening.

Accordingly, I would now ask unanimous consent that the Senate proceed to executive session to consider en bloc the following list of nominations that I will send to the desk. This is a list of approximately 60 nominations from the Executive Calendar.

I further ask unanimous consent that the nominations be confirmed en bloc, the motions to reconsider be laid upon the table, the President be immediately notified of the Senate's action, and the Senate resume legislative session.

The PRESIDING OFFICER. Is there objection?

Mr. HARKIN. I object.

The PRESIDING OFFICER. Objection is heard. The Senator from Iowa.

Mr. HARKIN. I say to my friend from Kentucky, fairness and equity? OK. Let's talk about fairness and equity. Let's talk about this. Mr. Becker was brought up in our committee last fall, along with Mark Pearce and Mr. Brian Hayes. They all went through our committee--bipartisan. Mr. Enzi, the ranking Republican on our committee, voted for that, and so did the Senator from Alaska, Ms. Murkowski.

The names were then forwarded to the Senate. They came to the Senate, and the leadership on the Republican side decided to filibuster--decided to filibuster. We had an agreement to move this package forward on the National Labor Relations Board.

Fairness and equity? Since 1985, we have never had a hearing for a member to be on the National Labor Relations Board who wasn't nominated for Chair because when the Republicans were in power, they would have their people, we would have ours, we would agree, and they would go through. That is what we did last fall with Mr. Becker and Mr. Pearce and Mr. Hayes. And I thought things were fine. That is the way we have always done things. We agreed. We came out on the floor. And then the Republican leadership decided to filibuster--decided to filibuster.

Well, what happened then was that at the end of the year--I want to set the record straight here--what happens is at the end of the last session, there is always a unanimous consent to carry over the calendar, the Executive Calendar, from one session to the next.

One Senator, the Senator from Arizona, Mr. McCain, objected to Mr. Becker. Under the rules of the Senate, then Mr. Becker had to go back to the White House and get renominated and sent back to the Senate.

The Republicans asked for a hearing on Mr. Becker. Now, mind you, we have never had a hearing on one of these people since 1985. As the chair of the relevant committee, I did not have to have a hearing. But I decided, Mr. Becker has nothing to hide. He is willing to confront and answer all questions in open session. So I agreed to have a hearing.

I could have had a hearing on Mr. Hayes, also, the Republican, but I said: No, we do not have to do that.

So I had a hearing. We brought Mr. Becker before the committee, in open session, to answer any questions anyone asked him. If I am not mistaken, I think only three people showed up to ask him questions. But what they did is they submitted questions in writing. The Republicans submitted 440 written questions to Mr. Becker, almost twice what they did for Justice Sotomayor going on the Supreme Court. There were 440 written questions, and Mr. Becker obliged and answered all of those questions. Well, the Republicans still objected--still objected.

Now the minority leader says he failed a vote in the Senate. That is not true because there was a filibuster. We needed 60 votes to overcome the filibuster. When we brought up Mr. Becker's name, he got 52 votes on the Senate floor. Quite frankly, he would have had more, but there were several Senators who were absent because of weather conditions. I know who said on the Record that they would have supported him. So it is not quite right when the minority leader says Mr. Becker did not get approved on the Senate floor. He did. He just could not get the 60 votes to overcome the Republican filibuster.

So, again, you know, Mr. Becker is well qualified. Even my Republican colleagues freely admitted that in the committee, that he was well qualified. Do you know what their objection was? He comes from a union background. He comes from a union background. To the Republicans, that is a mortal sin. Well, if you are Catholic, you know what that means. That is a mortal sin. That is unforgivable to Republicans to have a union background.

As I said, he was willing to answer any questions. He did, in writing. I have heard nothing--nothing from the Republican side pointing to some answer he gave that would disqualify him from being on the NLRB. They have simply drawn a line in the sand and said that because he has a union background, they are not going to support him and they are going to filibuster.

So here we are. We wanted to get through all of those nominations tonight. I read some of them. I did not read them all. Ambassador to the Slovak Republic, Ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Ambassador to Niger, Deputy Director of the Peace Corps--they will not let them go through. Why? Because of one person--Mr. Becker--who has a union background and they do not want him on the NLRB.

Well, Mr. Becker has a recess appointment. He did get a recess appointment from the President. But they will not let him get a full appointment by the President. And they are willing to stop everything, stop every nomination because of their objections to Craig Becker even through Craig Becker got 52 votes here on the Senate floor.

So when the minority leader talks about fairness and equity, well, I think the fairness and equity is on this side of the aisle on this one. I am sorry to say that a lot of these people will not get their nominations. But, again, the Republicans do not care. They do not care. They would just as soon the government stop everything.

Do they care whether we have enough people in the Peace Corps to run the Peace Corps? They do not care. Do they care whether we have an Ambassador to the Slovak Republic? They do not care. Do they care if we have members on the TVA, the Tennessee Valley Authority, board of directors? Obviously not. They have been holding up these nominees for a long time. This is not the first time they have held up these nominees.

So fairness and equity? Well, I wish the minority side would show a little fairness and equity when it comes to decency and to abiding by agreements. We had an agreement. We had an agreement to move these people through as a package. We did that in committee. That agreement was broken by the Republicans, not by the Democrats.

I am sorry to have to take this time on the floor to correct my friend from Kentucky on fairness and equity, but I think the public has a right to know why we are where we are right now and who is responsible for the fact that we cannot get nominations through here on the Senate floor.
Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What Is a City?

Cities are like nothing else on Earth.


Video

What Is a City?

Cities are like nothing else on Earth.

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Politics

From This Author

Just In