Rare agreement on Capitol Hill over confirmation process

June 29, 2011

Stop the presses!

A man-bite-dog moment at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.

The normally grid-locked U.S. Senate — Democrats, Republicans, independents — came together and overwhelmingly passed a bill to reduce its workload, curb its power and perhaps even decrease partisan fighting.

Drafted by the chamber’s party leaders, the measure, which now goes to the House of Representatives for anticipated final congressional approval, would slash the number of presidential appointees who need Senate confirmation.

More specifically, it would eliminate the confirmation requirement for about 200 of the 1,200 posts in the executive branch as well as for more than 2,800 members of the U.S. Public Health Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Officer Corps.

Judicial nominees, along with senior department personnel, so-called policy makers, would still need Senate confirmation.

But it would no longer be required for those on part-time boards or commissions or for lower-level adminstrators.

The legislation also establishes a working group to propose ways to streamline paperwork requirements for presidential nominations and background investigations of them.

The number of presidential appointees who need Senate confirmation has risen by about 50 percent in the last half century.

In the past decade, many waited for months, even a year or more, to get confirmed.

Others were essentially forgotten or ignored.

Others still got grilled at televised confirmation. But for one reason or another, never got a Senate confirmation vote — so they never got to serve.

Meanwhile, the Senate docket has been routinely packed with pending nominees.

Senator Charles Schumer, the chamber’s No. 3 Democrat, hailed the reform package.

“Over the last several decades, we’ve seen an amazing increase in the nominees we’ve had to confirm. It has gotten out of hand, and that is something both sides of the aisle can agree on,” Schumer said.

“We are in no way abdicating our advice and consent duty – we are strengthening it. We are focusing on the positions that truly need it,” Schumer said.

Senator Lamar Alexander, a member of Republican leadership and, like Schumer,  a chief author of  the bill, said the chief aim was to offer relief to nominees.

“It is about ending the phenomenon of innocent until nominated, which is what happens to distinguished citizens of this country who are asked to serve in the Federal Government and, to their great horror, discover they are heading through a maze of conflicting forms and questionnaires, until finally they are drug before a tribunal in the Senate and caught in an inadvertent error and made out to be a criminal, when they thought they were an upstanding citizen,” Alexander said.

“We should stop that business, and every administration in recent years has asked us to do it. So this is the right thing to do,” he said.

Republican Senator Jim DeMint, a favorite of the anti-Washington Tea Party movement,  stood on the floor of his chamber shortly before the vote and said,  “It’s good to see Democrats and Republicans working together on something.”

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Photo credit: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque (picture of Capitol); Reuters/Jim Bourg (nomination hearing of Elena Kagan to be U.S. Supreme Court Justice in 2010)

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