Thursday, May 30, 2024

Opinion | The Senate confirmation process is broken. Here’s how we can fix it.

Opinion | The Senate confirmation process is broken. Here’s how we can fix it.

Max Stier is the president and CEO of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.

Increased partisan conflicts over presidential nominees have been tying the Senate in knots. In recent years, the chamber has spent more time voting on nominations than voting on legislation to deal with the country’s problems — even as it confirms ever fewer appointees than in the past.

An analysis by my organization, the Partnership for Public Service, found that procedural votes, cloture votes to end debate and direct votes on presidential nominations made up nearly 55 percent of all recorded Senate votes during former president Donald Trump’s first two years in office, and 59 percent during President Biden’s first 24 months. This compares with just 14 percent during the first two years of George W. Bush’s presidency and 11 percent during Barack Obama’s.

Meanwhile, votes on amendments, to end debates and for final passage of legislation accounted for only 28 percent of all recorded votes during Trump’s first two years in office and 31 percent during Biden’s first two years in office, compared with about 55 percent during the first two years of both the Bush and Obama administrations.

Yet ironically, even as more time has been spent voting on nominations during the first two years of the Trump and Biden presidencies, fewer nominees have been confirmed. The first two years of both Bush and Obama saw 957 and 881 nominees confirmed, respectively. Those numbers are just 620 for Trump and 793 for Biden.

The decline in confirmations, partly due to senators seeking to score political points or gain leverage on unrelated issues, has left the executive branch struggling with vacancies in such critical areas as national security, public health, aviation safety and immigration.

For the first time since 1859, there is no Senate-confirmed commandant of the Marine Corps. The recent retirement of the Army’s chief of staff and the departure of the Chief of Naval Operations on Monday has left three of our military services without Senate-confirmed leaders for the first time in the Defense Department’s history.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency lacks a permanent deputy administrator for resilience, even as Americans face the effects of catastrophic wildfires in Canada and Hawaii. And only recently, after a long vacancy, did the Senate confirm an ambassador to Niger, just as a faction of the country’s military overthrew the democratically elected president.

In addition, there has been no permanent director of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement since the Obama administration, no confirmed coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department during the Biden administration and no permanent official in charge of government-wide financial management for the past six years.

While senators have the constitutional prerogative of advice and consent on executive branch nominations, the process needs to be reformed if we want a more productive Senate, focused on the pressing issues of the day, and a more effective federal government.

There are several options available for streamlining this dysfunctional system. They begin with reducing the overwhelming number of Senate-confirmed political appointments, which now total more than 1,200.

One choice would be to convert some confirmed positions to non-confirmed presidential appointments. This would involve taking some second-tier jobs with less responsibility and influence off the Senate docket, with senators having the ability to hold the confirmed superiors of these second-tier appointees accountable.

At the same time, some jobs now requiring Senate approval could be converted to the career civil service, particularly positions involving operational skills as opposed to policymaking positions, in the process providing agencies with management expertise and continuity.

Another possibility would be to convert some Senate-confirmed political appointments on boards and commissions to presidential or agency-controlled appointments. Enabling part-time positions within ceremonial and advisory commissions to be appointed by the president or Senate-confirmed agency leaders would help reduce the burden on the confirmation process.

In addition, the Senate could reform its “privileged” nomination calendar, which allows a subset of nominations, including part-time positions on boards and commissions, to bypass committees and be sent directly to the Senate chamber for consideration. Many of these nominees, however, still get ignored or caught up in lengthy Senate floor procedures that delay their confirmations and now frequently take more time than the traditional confirmation process.

There are far more political jobs, confirmed or appointed, in the U.S. government than in other developed countries. Over time, the number has grown while the nomination and confirmation process has become more arduous, lengthy and politicized.

The Framers intended to allow presidents to staff administrations with the best individuals while limiting the power of the executive branch to install unsuitable candidates or to use government positions for personal and political gain. This objective still has merit, but the process has run amok and would be unrecognizable to the founders of our country.

The damage to our government’s ability to deliver critical services and keep us safe is profound, and the situation is simultaneously undermining the Senate’s capacity to do its job. The status quo is unacceptable. It is time for change.

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