The Senate and the Broken Confirmation Process

Allia Calkins

Since being inaugurated for his second term of office in January, President Barack Obama has had a difficult time accomplishing basic housekeeping in the White House. Republicans in Congress hoping to make a political statement have blocked his nominations both for secretary of defense and CIA director. These recent fights in the Senate have made it into the public eye, but there are also a number of positions in both the executive and judicial branches of government that are waiting on the Senate’s confirmation to be filled. The Constitution says, “[the president] shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States” (Article II, section 2, clause 2), but it does not specify a time frame for Senate confirmation. Because of this, confirmation has become a tool for the minorities’ voices to be heard in Congress, and accordingly, important government jobs have been left vacant.

Most recently, President Obama’s nominations for the head of the CIA and the Secretary of Defense, John Brennan and Chuck Hagel respectively, were both blocked by the Senate through filibuster. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) took to the Senate floor for 13 hours to draw attention to the Obama administration’s use of drones in targeting and killing American citizens, and Senate Republicans blocked Hagel’s confirmation to gain more time to examine his record and possibly learn new information about him [1]. Both nominees were eventually confirmed, but the debacle raises questions about  the system of checks and balances in government, and when these checks go too far. Nominations, in the case of Brennan, should not be held hostage in order to bring an issue onto the public scene, no matter how important the issue. It is vital to remember that the world is watching the United States during these processes, and if the government uses the position of head of the CIA as a bargaining chip then it appears weak and divided as a government. The Hagel confirmation may be slightly more excusable, but only because Republicans claimed to be using the time gained by their filibuster to gather more research on him. However, as Renee Montagne of NPR stated that “…filibustering a defense secretary nominee is unheard of” [1].

It is not just these high profile cases that showcase a broken Senate confirmation system. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has been without a judge since August 2010. Rosemary Marquez was nominated in June of 2011, however she has yet to be confirmed . Similarly, Caitlin Halligan has been waiting for confirmation for the circuit in the District of Columbia since September 2010. The American Constitution Society has determined that since 2010 the federal judiciary has had a constant vacancy rate near 100 seats [2]. These are gaps in the judiciary that burden sitting judges with high caseloads. This makes it necessary to rank court cases in order of importance, which pushes certain civil cases to the back of the queue and creates another issue entirely.

Like cabinet and judicial positions, the Senate has also blocked nominees to certain departments in the executive branch. At the end of President Obama’s first term, there were 68 government agencies with vacancies and no leaders. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services have not had permanent directors since 2006, the Election Assistance Commission has not had a commissioner since 2011, and the Department of the Interior had six vacant appointed positions at the end of Obama’s first term [3]. Like the empty judicial seats, these organizations are suffering because of a lack of leadership. Important decisions cannot be made and the agencies are unable to efficiently carry out their purposes.

These delays in confirmation have been happening even more frequently as Congress has become more polarized, and they can occur for any number of reasons. The Republican minority in the Senate can use this process to reduce big government without going against their constitutional duty, or it can be used, as in the case of Brennan, to bring attention to an issue that certain Senators care about. Whatever the reason for delaying confirmation for an appointment made by the president, it disrupts the American system. William Boarman was nominated by Obama in 2010 to head the Government Printing Office, yet he was never confirmed for the position. He believes that the grueling confirmation process, or lack thereof in many instances, will dissuade qualified candidates from accepting nominations. The Senate stalling like this negatively impacts the efficiency of the American government and sheds a bad light on our government internationally. The Senate must start to abide by the Constitution in principle as well as what is literally written. Only then will the United States be able to start its most pressing problems.





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