Appointmentpalooza in the Senate? Don't Bet on It

Liberals shouldn't expect the "nuclear option" to end Senate obstruction of Obama's nominees.

There are 231 presidential nominations waiting to be confirmed by the Senate. Now that Democrats have changed the filibuster rules—last week's invocation of the "nuclear option"—those are all going to sail through, right? The Senate will be one non-stop confirmation party until every federal judicial chamber, Cabinet-agency desk, ambassadorship, and oversight board is occupied by a liberal Obama appointee! Flowers will bloom and music will play in the Capitol as Harry Reid presents "Appointmentpalooza"!

Not quite.

While the White House and Senate Democrats anticipate seeing a handful of high-profile appointees confirmed in the next month, even advocates hailing the new rules don't expect the "nuclear" change to provoke a wholesale thaw in the appointment process. That's because the filibuster—the threat to extend debate on a motion (which previously required 60 votes to shut down, and now requires just 51 for most nominations)—wasn't the only bottleneck in the long and convoluted process of getting presidential appointments through the Senate. So while Reid, the majority leader, chastised Republicans for "deny[ing] the president his team," President Obama's bench isn't likely to be suddenly flooded with new players. And liberals expecting the nuclear option to be a panacea for ending obstruction are likely to be disappointed.

According to statistics kept by the White House, the pending nominations include 178 executive nominees and 53 judicial nominees. Reid pulled the "nuclear" trigger out of frustration that three appointees to the D.C. Circuit Court were being blocked: Patricia Millett, Nina Pillard, and Robert Wilkins. Immediately after changing the rules, Reid successfully advanced Millett's nomination to a floor vote—but she still hasn't been confirmed, because nothing is that easy in the Senate. In December, Democrats hope to move those three through to confirmation, along with proposed Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, and Federal Housing Finance Agency head Mel Watt. (Watt has been waiting more than 200 days to be confirmed, the second longest of any executive nominee currently on the floor.)

But the fact that those six nominees could take a month to clear the Senate, even without a 60-vote threshold, is a good indication of the time it could take to clear the rest of the backlog. "Democrats sold this [change] as 'We need to speed things up to make the Senate work,' but nothing they did speeds anything up or makes anything faster," Don Stewart, the deputy chief of staff to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, told me. "The notion that this will make the Senate run better or faster is a complete and utter falsehood."

McConnell, of course, bitterly opposed the rule change. But Democrats and filibuster-reform advocates don't totally disagree with Stewart. The fact that they don't have the votes to block a nominee at the end of the process might give Republicans less incentive to erect time-consuming obstacles along the way, they say. But it doesn't get rid of the mechanisms for doing so.

"The question is, are nominations going to move any more quickly now that [the majority doesn't] have to worry about getting a 60-vote supermajority at the end of the game?" says Sarah Binder, a Senate expert at George Washington University and the Brookings Institution. The answer, she said, remains to be seen. "There are still some elements built into committee practices that give power to individual members of the minority."

Most people, let's face it, are not that interested in Senate procedure, myself included. But the filibuster has gained popular traction as an issue because it symbolizes, to Democrats, the way Republicans who object to Obama on purely partisan grounds have tried to prevent him from getting his way. Republicans dispute the idea that Obama has faced more than the usual level of obstruction, and the facts—including what constitutes a filibuster and how to measure obstruction—are confusing and open to interpretation and spin

But whether Obama will, in fact, get to put his "team" in place is an important question. As Jonathan Chait has noted, the president has largely given up on getting legislation through Congress; his legacy now rests on what his executive agencies will be able accomplish, from labor-law implementation to environmental regulation, and what precedents his judicial nominees will set over the course of their lifetime appointments. If you're interested in this question, it's worth understanding how it all works—and doesn't work—and why it will still be a tough and lengthy process for Obama to get all his appointees through.

1. Many vacancies don't have a nominee. It seems obvious: You can't appoint someone to a position if you don't suggest someone for the job. But of the 112 current judicial vacancies, more than half—59—lack a nominee, according to the liberal Alliance for Justice. Republicans often cite this fact to claim that it's really the Obama Administration leaving posts unfilled. But Democrats blame Republicans: In the case of judicial nominees, it is customary for the administration to secure the approval of the senators from the nominee's home state. In the current climate of partisan noncooperation, this consultation is often denied. Liberals suspect that, in the words of Brookings Institution fellow Russell Wheeler, "Republican senators are, on an unprecedented scale, objecting to nominees floated by the administration, insisting on nominees unacceptable to the administration, or simply slow-walking the process—and threatening to exploit their ability to deny hearings to nominees from their states if the administration nominates someone to whom they object."

Presented by

Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


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

Just In