BLOCKING EXECUTIVE BRANCH APPOINTMENTS

ABSTRACT: The willingness of some Republicans to impede the effective functioning of the federal government has extended to consistent efforts to block or delay the President’s nominees to fill positions in the Executive Branch. Senate Republicans have filibustered, threatened to filibuster, or have otherwise delayed a number of Obama’s selections for cabinet posts, including the secretaries of State, Defense, and the Treasury, as well as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Similarly, Senate Republicans are blocking nominees to the National Labor Relations Board and for two years have refused to confirm anyone to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. House and Senate Republicans have refused to appoint members to the Independent Payment Advisory Board, a health care cost control group.

Even when President Obama goes out of his way to nominate what would seem to be uncontroversial choices with bipartisan support, Senate Republicans have engaged in filibustering and delaying confirmation. Many words can be used to describe this strategy: one would be obstructionist; others would be undemocratic and unpatriotic. I encourage you to contact your Senators to express support for ending the blocking of Executive Branch appointments. Our government needs to be able to function!

FULL POST: The willingness of some Republicans to impede the effective functioning of the federal government has extended to consistent efforts to block or delay the President’s nominees to fill positions in the Executive Branch.

Senate Republicans have filibustered [1], threatened to filibuster, and otherwise delayed many of President Obama’s nominees to fill executive branch positions, including a number of Obama’s selections for cabinet posts. They threatened to filibuster and conducted such an aggressive campaign against Susan Rice, who Obama wanted to nominate for Secretary of State, that her name was never formally submitted. They threatened to filibuster Chuck Hagel’s nomination for Secretary of Defense, even though he was a former Republican Senator, and a conservative one at that. After a concerted effort to discredit him, he was eventually approved.

Senate Republicans are delaying confirmation of the President’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Gina McCarthy, and have been for over four months. One of their delaying tactics, and part of an effort to make the delaying tactics seem justified, is their submission of over 1,000 written questions, some with multiple parts, that they demand that she answer. (The previous three EPA nominees had received between 157 and 305 written questions.) Answering these questions in writing required over 200 pages and untold hours of work over two weeks by an unknown number of government employees.

Political scientist Norman Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute said, “One thousand questions is beyond the point of absurdity … This is ratcheting up obstruction and partisan warfare to an unprecedented level.” [2]

Furthermore, Senate Republicans blocked a scheduled committee vote on her nomination by boycotting the meeting. McCarthy, who has 25 years experience in the field, was viewed as a safe, compromise choice given that she had worked for five Republican Governors (four in Massachusetts and one in Connecticut). One of those MA Governors was Jane Swift, who wrote, “I have witnessed firsthand the qualities that make McCarthy so uniquely qualified to take on the challenges of heading the nation’s top environmental department. … Obama deserves to select his own team. The Senate should swiftly approve McCarthy’s nomination.” [3]

Similarly, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, when nominated earlier this year faced 444 written questions or 700 if each question in a multipart question is counted individually. This was far more than his predecessors, despite the fact that his Wall Street and government experience meant he was from the same mold as his predecessors. Confirmation of Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Labor is currently being delayed.

Even when President Obama goes out of his way to nominate what would seem to be uncontroversial choices with bipartisan support, such as McCarthy for the EPA and Hagel for the Defense Department, Senate Republicans have engaged in blocking and delaying confirmation. Every other president has been allowed to pick his cabinet members without much opposition in the Senate, under the premise that a president should be allowed to select his own team and then be held accountable for their performance. Currently, some Republicans are engaged in a “state of permanent partisan warfare over Obama’s Cabinet nominees.” [4]

Senate Republicans are also blocking five nominees to the National Labor Relations Board, the agency charged with protecting the rights of workers. They are also suing the President to invalidate the appointments he made without Senate confirmation when the Senate was in recess, a practice previous presidents have used when appointments have been delayed. The combination of these efforts effectively paralyzes the agency and may invalidate some of its previous actions. Part of the motivation for these obstructionist tactics is the Republicans’ effort to undermine the effectiveness of unions, given that this Board addresses formal complaints filed by unions. As Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren put it, “This is about complete obstructionism because the minority senators don’t like the agencies, and they don’t like the work these agencies do.” [5]

Senate Republicans have for two years refused to confirm (by threatening a filibuster) anyone to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, once again because they don’t like this agency and its role of protecting consumers from fraud and misleading practices by financial corporations. (See 7/26/12 post.)

House and Senate Republicans have refused to appoint members to the Independent Payment Advisory Board. This Board of medical experts, created by the Affordable Care Act (aka ObamaCare), works to control health care costs by evaluating drugs, treatments, and other health care measures. Because Republicans oppose the health care law, they are defying the law and refusing to appoint the members they are required to, which was part of the effort to make the law bipartisan. Board members need to be confirmed by the Senate as well, and if Senate Republicans block confirmation of appointees to the Board, its responsibilities will fall to Obama’s Secretary of Health and Human Services. This isn’t what one would think the Republicans would want to see happen. Therefore, it appears that this is an effort to delay and obstruct the functioning of government, while hoping to score political points for appearing to oppose ObamaCare. [6]

Republicans’ obstructionism, at least in part, is due to their opposition to current policies, to the established missions of some agencies, and to most government regulation in general. In our democratic system, the way to address such concerns is to change them through legislation. The Republicans resort to the undemocratic tactics of obstruction because the majority of the country does not agree with them.

The examples above are not isolated incidents but a concerted strategy of extreme partisanship and/or rigid ideology by some Republicans to undermine President Obama, to bog down Congress and the Obama administration in political fights that prevent important issues facing our country from being addressed, and, ultimately, to prevent government from functioning effectively. Many words can be used to describe this strategy: one would be obstructionist; others would be undemocratic and unpatriotic.

The Senate may well vote soon on restricting the use of the filibuster to block Executive Branch appointments. I encourage you to contact your Senators to express support for ending the blocking of Executive Branch appointments. Our government needs to be able to function!


[1]       A filibuster occurs when one or more Senators refuse to end debate on a piece of legislation or other matter. It requires a super-majority of 60 out of 100 votes to close off debate (cloture) and allow a vote on the bill or other matter.

[2]       Bierman, N., 5/16/13, see above

[3]       Swift, J., 5/25/13, “Qualified nominee for EPA,” The Boston Globe

[4]       Bierman, N., 5/16/13, “1 nominee, 1,000 questions,” The Boston Globe

[5]       Associated Press, 5/17/13, “GOP fights labor board nominees,” The Boston Globe

[6]       Editorial, 5/9/13, “Congress, the death panel’s death panel,” Ringside Seat from The American Prospect

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