Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Republican obstructionism watch - Obama threatens recess appointments for unfilled positions

We may finally be seeing some public awareness of the fact that the increasingly unrestrained and promiscuous use of Senatorial "holds"--in effect, one variant of the filibuster--to block or delay consideration of Presidential nominees is getting out of control and threatens to sabotage necessary operations of government.

This past year I have been puzzled by the extent to which the Congressional Republicans have been able to get away with an absolutely unprecedented amount of this kind of obstructionism without much of a peep from the Democrats. (By contrast, during the first 6 years of the Bush II administration, when the Republicans controlled both Congress and the White House, they complained loudly and constantly about Democratic "obstructionism" whenever the Democrats had the temerity to oppose their agenda--despite the fact that, in practice, they rolled over Democratic opposition fairly easily most of the time.) Why on earth have the Democrats, and particularly the Obama White House, given the Republicans a free ride this way?

That situation may to be changing. As reported yesterday in the National Journal:
In a surprise visit to the WH press room today, Pres. Obama threatened to make recess appointments if holds on his non-controversial nominees aren't lifted.

The threat comes just a day after Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) dropped holds on more than 70 pending nominees -- holds he placed after a dispute with the WH over earmarks for his home state.

Obama said he told Congressional leaders, with whom he met at the WH today, that he would make recess appointments if the Senate does not act on his nominations.

"We can't afford to allow politics to stand in the way of a well-functioning government," Obama said. He pointed to GSA administrator Martha Johnson, whose nomination was held up for 9 months by Sen. Kit Bond (R-MO) in a dispute over a federal building in Kansas City. Johnson's nomination was confirmed last week in a 96-0 vote. [....]

Obama said he asked leaders for a "stop to these holds" which can go on for several months. "Surely we can set aside partisanship and do what's traditionally been done to confirm these nominations," Obama said.

When the Senate delays nominations, "that's not advise and consent," said Obama. "That's delay and obstruct." [....]
"Recess appointments" are temporary appointments--running either one or two years, I think, depending on the position--which Presidents can make while Congress is not in session. These appointments can be made without the usual consideration and confirmation by the Senate, though the officeholders will have to go through that process if and when they get renewed. Recess appointments have been used frequently in the past, not least by the Bush II administration, but making a lot of them at once would be unusual. On the other hand, this is a case where the provocation has been exceptional, too.

=> Brad DeLong's reaction, with which I sympathize, is that "Obama should have done this eight months ago."
Now it's much too late to threaten recess appointments: it's time to make them. If I were BHO, I would make 20 recess appointments this weekend (starting with the two Federal Reserve governors).
Under the circumstances, there's a lot to be said for that. Aside from filling important government positions that need to be filled, taking this action would be a dramatic gesture that might help bring home the problem that, as Norman Ornstein puts it, the increasingly promiscuous use of these obstructionist devices "on Capitol Hill is unprecedented and is bringing government to its knees."

--Jeff Weintraub