In January of 2011, several senators attempted major reforms to the Senate rules intended to thwart the kind of obstructionism that has reigned in the Senate every since Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) took over as Minority Leader. This effort failed due to opposition from both Republicans and many senior Democrats. Filibuster reform’s opponents did, however, agree to pass a minor bill eliminating the requirement that certain military officers and low-level political appointees be confirmed by the Senate. That bill now passed both houses of Congress:
The House gave final congressional approval Tuesday to a bill that would save the slow-paced Senate some time by eliminating the need for confirming nominees to some 170 executive branch jobs and 3,000 military officer positions. . . . Among positions that will no longer need Senate approval are a chief scientist in the Commerce Department, directors of the Corporation for National and Community Service, the top press spokesmen for the Defense, Treasury and State departments, members of the Council of Economic Advisers, the commissioner of education statistics, the Homeland Security Department’s chief medical officer, director of the Labor Department’s Women’s Bureau and members of the Mississippi River Commission.
Although this bill is a positive development, its impact will be limited. It does nothing to prevent a minority of the Senate from attempting to shut down entire agencies by filibustering essential personnel. It does nothing to prevent widespread obstruction of judicial nominees. And it does nothing to prevent the minority choking the federal government by making it impossible for the Senate to confirm more than a small fraction of a president’s nominees.
As a 2010 Center for American Progress report explains, Senate rules allow a small minority of the Senate to waste up to 30 hours of floor time before a single nominee can be confirmed. When these 30 hours are multiplied across the all Senate-confirmed political appointees a president needs to fill, it adds up to more time than any president is allowed to stay in office:
After the bill that just passed the House becomes law, obstructionist senators will still have the power to force the majority to waste more than 1,000 days Senate work days before a president’s entire slate of nominees can be confirmed.
There is some reason to be optimistic that more meaningful filibuster reform could occur next year, however. Every two years, when newly elected senators are sworn in, a brief window opens up allowing the Senate to change its rules by a simple majority vote, rather than the 67 vote supermajority the Senate’s rules normally require. Although Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) opposed serious reform efforts the last time this window opened, he has since recanted. Last May, Reid delivered a floor speech where he agreed that the senators who supported significant rules reform “were right. The rest of us were wrong.”