What happens if Ben Bernanke isn’t reconfirmed? Well, some folks seem to think it will send markets into a tailspin. But it’s worth emphasizing that in literal terms almost nothing will happen. If a left-right coalition of 40 Senators blocks his confirmation, then it’s hard to see what other candidate would be more to their liking. You’d have gridlock. But Bernanke’s term as a member of the Fed’s Board of Governors is actually a 14-year term that doesn’t expire for a long time. Consequently, the same Open Market Committee that’s making decisions right now would just go on making decisions. Bernanke would, however, be unable to perform the formal responsibilities of the Chairman, so that role would devolve to Donald Kohn, the Vice Chair.
Would that be a ridiculous situation for an erstwhile major country with a functioning political system to find itself in?
Why yes it would. But it would merely be a reminder that we are, in fact, in a ridiculous situation and do not, in fact, have a functioning political system. Take a look at the current Treasury Department org chart and note that only one Undersecretary has been confirmed by the Senate. We’re missing the Undersecretaries for Domestic Finance and for International Affairs as well as a boatload of assistant secretaries. Those sound like important subjects to me amidst a financial crisis. And, in fact, they are important jobs. And they’re not exactly going undone—an ad hoc group of “counselors” to Tim Geithner and such are keeping the show running. But this is not really a good way to run the government.
By the same token, the routine filibustering has done something odd to the president’s ability to fire subordinates. Obama can’t really sack any member of his cabinet or subcabinet unless he has a specific replacement in mind who he’s certain can secure 60 votes in the Senate. Which means he basically can’t fire anyone. I suppose in some cockamamie way all this might advance the electoral interests of Republican Senators (although it’s actually hard for me to see how it does) but it’s not good for the country.