One-Man Government: The Clock Ticks On

It's been just over two weeks since Senator Mitch McConnell, on his own, derailed the planned Senate confirmation of 80-plus federal nominees. This left U.S. embassies vacant and the US embarrassed in those countries, scores of nominees and their families preparing to move but in limbo, various agencies without their Inspector General or Deputy Director -- and all because, as McConnell freely said on the Senate floor, he objected to exactly one of the nominations. This nominee, perversely, is unlike most of the others already in his job (Craig Becker, of the National Labor Relations Board), since Barack Obama had given him a recess appointment. McConnell wanted to register his retroactive unhappiness with Becker's labor-union background by holding up the rest of the seemingly agreed-on nominees.

This is an insane way to do the nation's business. (I write this having spent the day hearing in Beijing about new energy-efficiency and infrastructure projects here -- a setting that concentrates the mind. Yes, yes, despite all of China's own problems, of governance and otherwise.) If you check out the Senate's current "executive calendar" you see that the number of pending nominations -- those already vetted and approved by committee -- continues to back up . The U.S. Constitution reflected a complex balance of interests -- majority v. minority, big state v. small, countryside v. city, in those days free states v. slave states. It is inconceivable that the Founders intended what Senate custom and "comity" have recently been warped into: open-ended one-man obstructionism, via "holds" and "objections" to unanimous consent.

In the long run, I don't know the right way to re-set this majority/minority balance. (My previous best effort here. Among other reports on aspects of the slowdown see this from NPR last year and this from FoxNews.com.) In the short run, the power of public embarrassment needs to be used against individual politicians who recognize so little check on their personal power. This might be a good time to make reservations for Sen. Tom Harkin's "Living Constitution" lecture at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU next Monday. Two weeks ago Harkin had a memorable real-time colloquy with McConnell about the mass blocking of appointments. The title of his upcoming lecture is promising: "Filibuster Reform: Curbing Abuse to Prevent Minority Tyranny in the Senate."

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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.

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