The U.S. Senate is sometimes referred to the most deliberative body in the world. And maybe that's justified: it is smart to deliberate over the consequences of serious legislation before passing it.
Although Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell turned deliberation into an art form, he may have met his match earlier this week when he was called to the White House for a little chat about getting things done. Just last week, while the House of Representatives, the federal government, and every state and local government were busy working, McConnell’s Senate found it necessary to stretch Columbus Day into Columbus Week. But that’s not to say the rest of his weeks are much more strenuous. Everybody likes a three-day weekend.
Not Senator McConnell: He likes four, or even sometimes five-day weekends. In his normal work week, he shows up around 6:00 p.m. on Monday, convenes the Senate for a quick one hour session and then adjourns for dinner and is back to work on Tuesday and Wednesday, and then adjourns sometime shortly after noon on Thursday to dash to the airport and home for another long weekend. Work on Saturdays to get caught up? Never.
After his talk with President Trump, Mr. McConnell announced that the Senate may have to work on Fridays and even an occasional weekend to get through the work they were hired to do.
It’s not as if they have nothing to do. A new president nominates candidates to fill the Executive Branch departments and agencies and under the Constitution’s Advise and Consent clause the Senate confirms them. In most cases the nominees go through the process without much controversy and go on their way to do the nation’s business. Not this time.
But he may be changing his ways. After his talk with President Trump, Mr. McConnell announced that the Senate may have to work on Fridays and even an occasional weekend to get through the work they were hired to do.
President Trump has sent 455 nominees to the Senate for confirmation. But McConnell’s Senate has confirmed only 182, leaving a staggering 273 nominees twisting in the wind, and 273 empty chairs waiting to be filled. By this time in Barack Obama’s administration, 358 of his nominees – nearly twice as many as Trump’s -- had been approved and were at their desks.
It would be easy to say that Chuck Schumer, the Democrat Minority Leader, is the culprit. To be sure, the Democrats have slowed up some, and even stopped a few others. But since Republicans did away with the filibuster, Democrats can slow the process down, but don’t have many tools to stop nominations any more. Instead, it is Republicans who find it inconvenient to stay in Washington. Not having people in place to run those executive branch agencies and departments is even more inconvenient for the taxpayers.
The Department of Justice, for example, has well over 200 positions to be filled, including 94 U.S. Attorneys and 95 U.S. Marshalls – officials instrumental in arresting and prosecuting criminals – as well as heads of another 30 divisions and bureaus. Although the president has nominated candidates of 70 of those positions, only eight have been confirmed, leaving the rest in limbo. The Senate Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Justice Department, has held hearings and reported most of those nominees to the full Senate. The delay is on Mitch McConnell’s Senate floor, where virtually all of the remaining nominees await confirmation. Although work goes on at the offices and bureaus, coherent and coordinated policy direction is lacking, making implantation of administration policy priorities difficult or non-existent.
Or ask people from Houston, Florida and Puerto Rico who are desperately waiting for the federal government to help them rebuild their lives after three devastating hurricanes. Much of that help comes from the Department of Health and Human Services, where nominees for three of the most important positions, including the General Counsel, are waiting action by the Senate.
At the Department of Defense, seven nominees have made it through the committee process and awaiting confirmation on the Senate floor. One of them, Owen West, who was easily approved by the Armed Services Committee in July, would be in charge of special operations and counter-terrorism but instead sits idly by waiting for the Senate to act.
Mitch McConnell is a complete creature of Washington, and is described by insiders as a swamp-creature’s swamp creature, loyal to his K Street constituents and dedicated to changing as little as possible. If he were an effective leader, successful in pushing through legislation (hello ObamaCare Repeal) his lackadaisical attitude concerning nominations might be acceptable. And if he can push the Republican tax reform package through the Senate -- now just beginning to see the light of day – he might be redeemed.
Let’s hope his trip to the White House woodshed was successful.