Weakening America: Mitch McConnell Shows How

One man's objection leaves 80 posts vacant


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?

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.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Politics

From This Author

Just In