The Senate wants to do less, and in this case, that is a good thing. It wants to spend less of its time arguing about the confirmation of hundreds of lower-level political appointees.
Opponents of this proposal, like David Addington of the Heritage Foundation, complain that the Senate will give away power to the president. But in reality, the Senate will retain its constitutional powers of advise and consent, and the change would benefit the Senate, the executive branch, and the many presidential nominees who sit in a needlessly bureaucratic process of appointment and confirmation.
In our system, the president appoints thousands of people to political positions in government, and hundreds of them require Senate confirmation. In this respect, America is very different from most of the world. In most parliamentary systems, government is staffed almost exclusively by career bureaucrats, with only a political minister at the top of each department. America has a mix, a skilled group of civil servants, but political appointees at the top three or four levels of each department. The president, with the consent of the Senate, appoints more than 600 positions in the cabinet departments. In addition, there are hundreds of ambassadors and U.S. attorneys who serve outside D.C., but who also require Senate confirmation. Add to that a long list of unpaid appointees to part-time advisory boards, and you realize that the Senate spends too much of its time debating and confirming many low-level officials.
There are also many political appointees who do not require Senate confirmation: hundreds of staffers in the White House, chiefs-of-staff to political appointees, and many lower-level schedule C staffers who also come from a political background.
While this system of numerous political appointees is very different than much of the rest of the world, it has several great strengths. First, a new president can bring his or her people into government. Strong supporters, campaign workers, and other fans of the president can not only advocate for the president’s election, but can serve in public office to help further the president’s agenda. Second, a president can draw on expertise outside of government, from people with careers in academia, business, labor, Congress, and the nonprofit sector. Third, the system allows our Senate to have a say on whether higher-level presidential appointees get into office.
But despite its strengths, the system of the president appointing and the Senate confirming appointees is not working very well today. The system is clogged and bureaucratic and discourages many good people from serving in government. Fortunately, there is a modest effort moving forward in the Senate to improve this process.
The Senate is considering removing lower-level appointees from the Senate confirmation process altogether, providing for an expedited vote for appointees to part-time, unpaid commissions, and creating a commission to rationalize the mess of the financial disclosure and background check process.
The effect can only be positive. Senators will still be able to vote for, vote against, or hold up political appointees at the highest levels of every department of government. But it will spend less of its time in fruitless argument over the lowest level nominees. It will have no less leverage over the executive, but more time to legislate. It is not a gift to the executive branch, but a sensible measure to free up senate and executive branch resources and make modest improvements for nominees going through the presidential appointment process. Win, win.
John Fortier is an adjunct scholar at AEI.