THE BLOG
04/14/2008 12:19 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Our "Home Alone" Government Helps No One

Washington is "Home Alone" as the Senate refuses to confirm nominees.

During last month's Bear Stearns financial crisis, the Federal Reserve was in the awkward position of having two empty seats on its seven-member Board of Governors. Two new nominees, along with a holdover member, have been awaiting Senate confirmation for a year. This was a problem because the votes of five governors were required to exercise the economic rescue clause that allowed the Fed to lend emergency funds. One governor was unavailable to vote, so a special rule had to be invoked for the Fed to act.

Back in 2000, then-Fed chairman Alan Greenspan warned the Senate that it must fulfill its duty to confirm nominees. Failure to do so, he said, "would effectively create a problem for us should a major financial crisis emerge." That almost happened last month. But the vacancies remain.
The problem goes far beyond the Federal Reserve. Partisan politics has brought Washington a "Home Alone" government, in which more than 200 nominees for the judicial and executive branches are waiting for Senate confirmation.

* * *

Foot-dragging in filling judicial vacancies is a growing problem. President Clinton got a Republican-controlled Senate to confirm 15 of his appellate court nominees in his final two years in office. So far the Democratic Senate has confirmed only seven Bush nominees. It is sitting on 10 more, apparently waiting to run out the clock on the administration, and never mind that seven of the remaining vacancies have been deemed "judicial emergencies."

The Securities and Exchange Commission has only three out of five commissioners. The National Labor Relations Board two members and three empty seats, so that, according to former chairman John Raudebaugh, it can handle "only cases that have no issues." The Consumer Products Safety Commission has only two of its five commissioners on the job at a time when public concern about lead-tainted toys is acute. Three key positions at the State Department, including the undersecretary for arms control, remain unconfirmed. Acting officials fill vacant slots at State and other agencies, but they are limited in their roles and often ignored by career bureaucrats who refuse to take them seriously.

The most ridiculous case is the Federal Election Commission, which has had only two out of six members since January. That's when Democrats balked at confirming Hans von Spakovsky, who had served on the FEC for two years. Sen. Barack Obama put his nomination on hold for years because Mr. von Spakovsky, as a Justice Department official, supported laws requiring voters to show photo ID. So much for Mr. Obama's call to transcend partisanship.

With only a skeleton crew, the FEC can't open new cases, hold public meetings or even issue advisory opinions. Michael Toner, a former FEC chairman, says the inability of the White House and the Senate to agree on nominees "hurts the ability of parties and candidates to comply with the law."

Presidential scholar Paul Light says both sides deserve some blame for a confirmation process he says has degenerated into "hostage negotiation between warring nations." Sure enough, while the Bush White House blames foot-dragging by Democrats, Senate Judiciary Chairman Pat Leahy responds that the administration "could care less" if some of its nominees get confirmed: "They dislike government. They dislike the way government works."

Suspicion of Mr. Bush runs so deep among Democrats that some seem to delight in making it impossible for a Republican administration to make policy decisions. Sen. Barbara Boxer, who chairs the Environment Committee, told Politico.com that "it's better to have fewer people on the commissions if the people who are nominated want to destroy the mission of their particular job." She added, "From my perspective, I'd rather have nobody."

* * *

It's already difficult to get good people to take top government jobs. Even before the confirmation process, they must contend with pay cuts, family disruptions, lengthy background checks and burdensome and duplicative financial disclosure forms. Mr. Light worries that the built-in delays in vetting and confirming Presidential appointees could mean the next administration won't be fully in place for a year.

The bloody-minded absolutism of the current confirmation wars threatens to have long-term negative consequences for whichever party holds office in the future. It's absurd for the United States to hold itself up as a model for democratic governance when as a nation we can't even get a full team onto the field to conduct basic administration and diplomacy.