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All Sides Are at Fault for Lack of Confirmations

The decision by Peter Diamond to withdraw his nomination for a seat on the Federal Reserve Board is yet another sign that the nomination and confirmation process is seriously out of whack. It’s also a sign that everyone involved in this process — the president and the White House, Senate leaders of both parties, the FBI and other agencies involved in vetting — needs to get serious about changing its downward spiral.

It would be hard to find a more impressive set of credentials than those possessed by Diamond. A Nobel Prize-winning economist at MIT, he is a leader in understanding the dynamics of unemployment and the labor supply, which by any standard are key elements for the Fed to consider to fulfill its policy mandate. The charge made by his Senate adversaries — that Diamond was not an expert in monetary policy — ignored both the fact that many of the nominees to the Fed of presidents of both parties have known less about monetary policy and the fact that the Fed plays a role in domestic and international economics far broader than a narrow focus on the money supply.

Of course, the opposition to Diamond was based on other factors, not the laughable charges about his lack of qualifications. In part, it was tit for tat, getting back at Senate Democrats for blocking the confirmation of Randy Kroszner for the Fed late in George W. Bush’s term, largely to keep the slot open for the next president. In part, it was Diamond’s policy views. And in part it was simply because he was nominated by President Barack Obama.

Blocking a highly qualified nominee to the Fed during a very difficult economic time is shameful. It was in 2008; it is now. But the blockage of nominees for extraneous reasons extends well beyond the Fed. We have several Justice Department nominees held hostage and a pledge by Senate Republicans to hold up the superbly qualified nominee for secretary of Commerce, John Bryson, over trade agreements. And we have the unprecedented situation of a Senate Republican commitment to block any nominees for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau because Republicans don’t like it. The CFPB is the law of the land. Misusing the confirmation power of the Senate to keep the law from being implemented — declaring that the qualifications for an office do not matter, and neither does the law of the land — is beyond shameful.

Dozens of other key positions are also unfilled. Recently, Sheila Bair, outgoing chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., warned of risk to the financial system unless key positions at the FDIC, CFPB, Treasury and Federal Housing Finance Agency are filled soon.

The blame is not just with the Senate. The Obama administration has been inexplicably and unconscionably slow in choosing nominees and moving them expeditiously through the executive portion of the process. From the beginning, filling top positions in the agencies and departments has been, at best, a secondary priority. The longer a president waits to fill positions, the tougher and longer the road to confirmation in the Senate. The failure to fill secondary posts then creates a crisis later, when primary appointees begin to leave and there is no one in-house to replace them.

But for all the failures of basic public administration in the White House, the real obstacle is a Senate that has lost its way — that ignores what should be a presumption that a president is entitled to his own picks for executive positions unless there is a compelling reason to object and that cruelly holds hostage people who are willing to make sizable sacrifices to do public service, sometimes vilifying them personally for political purposes and leaving them in limbo for months or even years. And more often than not, it is for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the nominees.

I wrote several weeks ago to commend the bipartisan group of Senators who have put forward a plan to streamline somewhat the confirmation process, with a set of recommendations that have long been endorsed by an army of outsiders, including major figures from previous administrations. Right now, though, those recommendations are being blocked by a small group of conservatives. Even if the reforms are enacted, the problem will still be acute. We need both a culture shift in the Senate — all Senators use holds to block nominees for their own parochial leverage — and a truce in the partisan wars.

We also need a shift in the approach of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Last year, the Nevada Democrat understandably was reluctant to call Senators’ bluffs on their holds because each nomination brought to the floor under the threat of a filibuster would take a lot of time, and time was too precious given the Senate’s huge legislative agenda. This year is different — there is a minuscule agenda; most things that pass the Senate will never pass the House and vice versa. Why not use the Senate’s time to call up many of these nominations being held up by individual Senators or by GOP leadership fiat? Take the time to have 41 Senators explain why they are blocking well-qualified nominees for frivolous or utterly unrelated reasons. And take some of your time to explain why this craziness is damaging the very fabric of governance and making it harder and harder to find good people to go through the political equivalent of enhanced interrogation techniques to serve their country.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.