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Time bombing the Senate

A few facts:

1. The nominations of Janet Yellen to be vice chairman of the Federal Reserve, as well as Sarah Bloom Raskin and Peter Diamond to be members of the Fed’s board, are languishing in the Senate. “We’ve got a limited amount of time here," explained Chris Dodd. "I don’t know if there’s going to be any appetite to deal with these Fed nominees." This means the Federal Reserve is critically understaffed: In the event of an emergency, the Board of Governors needs five members to authorize extraordinary actions to save the economy. Right now, there are only four.

2. The bipartisan -- and it's really bipartisan, with Sens. Mike Enzi, Richard Burr and Judd Gregg all signed on as co-sponsors -- food safety bill is in limbo again because Tom Coburn is obstructing its passage. Coburn doesn't have the votes to stop the bill, or even to stop a vote on the bill, but he does have the power to waste days and even weeks of Senate floor time.

3. The administration is exhibiting an increasing preference for recess appointments and non-confirmable positions. Don Berwick, for instance, was installed as director of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid using a recess appointment, as the administration judged the traditional process too broken to accommodate a nomination on something so controversial as health-care reform. Elizabeth Warren is getting an effectively made-up position "advising" the president on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau rather than simply leading it. "Warren herself has told allies on Capitol Hill that she would prefer to be assigned on a temporary basis, rather than enduring a prolonged confirmation process," reported Brady Dennis.

People basically understand the role the filibuster's role as a supermajority requirement. You need 60 votes rather than 50, which is straightforward enough. They don't understand, however, the way the Senate struggles with time: There's too much to do, and any one senator can make it virtually impossible to do anything.

In some cases, that means nothing gets done. So the Federal Reserve is understaffed and the food safety bill languishes. In other cases, that means things get done through unusual or ad hoc mechanisms that aren't accountable to Congress, as with Warren. The result of obstruction isn't just gridlock -- it's also evasion. And we need to think seriously about whether we're comfortable with a Congress that the executive branch increasingly goes around because it's too dysfunctional to go through.

By Ezra Klein  |  September 16, 2010; 10:24 AM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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Comments

I don't know which is funnier, that you think that an utterly corrupted Fed gears its actions to do things like "save the economy" or that it is bothered by such little things as legality when it does chose to act.

Posted by: mrnegative | September 16, 2010 10:44 AM | Report abuse

Can Obama recess appoint the Fed nominees and still have them confirmed later?

Posted by: mschol17 | September 16, 2010 11:10 AM | Report abuse

I think what's going on here is a sort of variation on the "Starve the Beast" ideology. Lowering taxes hasn't been effective at reducing overall spending, so maybe the government can be made less effective if it remains understaffed. Of course, just as starving government of revenues doesn't in reality mean that government spending shrinks, I think that Ezra's right that this sort of gridlock in putting people into jobs is just going to lead to the executive branch finding ways to put people into those jobs without going through Congress.

Posted by: MosBen | September 16, 2010 11:16 AM | Report abuse

"Don Berwick, for instance, was installed as director of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid using a recess appointment, as the administration judged the traditional process too broken to accommodate a nomination on something so controversial as health-care reform."

This should read

"Don Berwick, for instance, was installed as director of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid using a recess appointment, as the administration judged his previous comments on centralized health care decision making as too controversial to subject to public scrutiny."

It's one thing to have a recess appointment when the Senate is refusing to act on a nomination that has been made in good faith. It's another to do it so your nominee can avoid uncomfortable questions and public scrutiny at the confirmation hearing.

As you note in a recent post, public support for the health care reform law is going down, not up since passage.

http://voices.washingtonpost.com/ezra-klein/2010/09/health-care_reform_polling_poo.html

I would submit that one reason for this is tactics like this that indicate the administration is unwilling to make a direct case to the American public about why their policy is better. See also your post on just telling the truth about tax cuts.

http://voices.washingtonpost.com/ezra-klein/2010/09/what_id_like_to_hear_obama_say.html

You should do a post: "What I'd like to hear Obama say about Health Care Reform"

Posted by: jnc4p | September 16, 2010 11:23 AM | Report abuse

jnc4p:

"It's one thing to have a recess appointment when the Senate is refusing to act on a nomination that has been made in good faith. It's another to do it so your nominee can avoid uncomfortable questions and public scrutiny at the confirmation hearing"

This is the functionally the same thing today. The ACA passed. It is law. Confirming the positions that the law creates should be a public process, but it shouldn't be a chance to relitigate the bill again. There is a position. It needed to be filled. It was clear that Republicans would simply use the confirmation hearings not to determine if he has the qualifications but to make political hay out of the ACA.

As Ezra notes, this isn't the way the government should be run, but as long as every action taken, or not taken, by Congress becomes another political battleground for an election issue both parties will look for new ways to avoid Congress altogether.

Posted by: MosBen | September 16, 2010 11:47 AM | Report abuse

The claim that "People basically understand the role the filibuster's role as a supermajority requirement. You need 60 votes rather than 50, which is straightforward enough." is incorrect.


In a Pew poll 25% correctly answered that it takes 60 votes to end a filibuster

http://tinyurl.com/35875p9

Some thought a huge number of votes were required, but 25% thought a simple majority was enough and 37% admitted they didn't know. This makes it easy to understand why voters plan to punish Democrats for Republican obstruction.

Don't lose touch and use "people" to mean "people like me."

Actually, I guess you are aware of the problem. You were careful to politely remind your readers just in case some didn't know. I really think the Washington Post should poll the general public and separately its subscribers on matters of fact.

WaPo readers subscribers will know much more than the general public, so the poll will flatter them. I suspect that they will also know much less than WaPo writers tend to assume. If your colleagues casually tossed in facts which "people basically understand" the paper would contribute more to public knowledge.

Posted by: rjw88 | September 16, 2010 3:06 PM | Report abuse

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