Need More Evidence the Senate Is Absurd? Look No Further

If somebody were looking for evidence of the absurd dysfunctionality of the U.S. Senate, they'd need look no further than the nominations process. In a body that actually valued effective governance this would be a straightforward process, where the head of state nominates individuals to largely noncontroversial posts, and the Senate, after a reasonable period of examining the candidates, approves or rejects them. But this is the U.S. Senate, and nothing is that simple.

While there are bound to be a few appointments that cause a stir—this is politics after all—a large majority have always been, and will continue to be, pretty safe. Sure there will be differing ideologies from administration to administration, but that's one of the perks of winning the presidency. Remember that whole "elections have consequences" thing? Apparently Republicans don't, and nor do they have any interest in or respect for the effective delivery of government services, or so the news today would lead one to believe.

According to Sen. Harry Reid's office, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), utilizing a quirk of Senate procedure that allows an individual to halt a nominee's progression, has placed a blanket hold* on pending nominations. Not just one or two folks that he has worries about. All 70 prospective appointees. And he's not doing it out of concerns over their suitability or qualifications. He's doing it to get some pork for his state. From Congress Daily:

So a Republican (remember, they're the party that's supposed to be anti government spending) is blocking all Senate nominations because he wants a European corporation to build some planes in his state? You can't make it up.

If that wasn't enough, White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer noted yesterday that, after delaying her nomination for nine months, the Senate yesterday voted 96–0 to confirm presidential nominee Martha Johnson as GSA administrator. It's clear there was no significant material reason why Johnson, who also received unanimous approval in committee, should have been held up. The same has been true for several other nominees who, after long holds, received 70 ayes or more when the Senate finally voted.

After Scott Brown's win in Massachusetts, a favored Republican talking point was that his victory signaled a rejection of Washington and its murky ways of doing business.Yet with stunts like this, it's clear that Republicans are equally to blame for the perception of D.C. as rotten and broken. The problem for Democrats is that holding enormous majorities in Congress as well as the presidency means that D.C. is now seen as their town. For voters who don't closely follow the antics in D.C., it's hard to imagine that a Republican Party so weakened in terms of numbers could wield such power.

So far Democrats have done a poor job of calling the GOP out on these tactics. Preoccupied with fighting amongst themselves, they haven't unleashed a strong, unified message of GOP obstructionism. The president has become more forceful on this front recently, chastising the GOP in both his State of the Union and the meeting with GOP House leaders for not taking their responsibility to govern more seriously. But the message has been slow to take hold, and if Democrats aren't careful, Republicans could easily find their obstructionism rewarded in November.

** UPDATE 2: Citing a congressional scholar, Jonathan Chait says a blanket hold has never been used before. That news makes me wonder why Shelby feels so emboldened as to try now. Do Republicans view Democrats as so weakened and disorganized (and their own side so discipined) that the time is ripe for unprecedented procedural maneuvers? Perhaps he thinks voters don't consider the day to day workings of the Senate when casting their ballots. Whatever the answer, Shelby's move indicates that the GOP are feeling pretty empowered right now.