One-Man Government: The Clock Ticks On

By James Fallows

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."

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2010/06/one-man-government-the-clock-ticks-on/58014/