A Step to Majority Rule in the Senate
July 16, 2013, 11:00am


After years of growing Republican obstruction — legislation blocked, judicial candidates forced to withdraw, presidential nominations left to languish, government agencies rendered powerless by denying them leaders — Senate Democrats say they are finally ready to take action. Barring a last-minute deal, Harry Reid, the majority leader, said he would move to change the Senate rules on Tuesday to ban the filibuster for executive appointments.

This is a relatively modest step toward returning basic governance to the chamber. It does not change the 60-vote requirement that Republicans have made routine for virtually all legislation, perverting the majoritarian vision of the Constitution. It does not ban the filibuster for judicial nominees, though we wish it did because Republicans are still holding up too many federal court candidates.

Nonetheless, Mr. Reid’s move would be an extremely important reassertion of majority rule, finally allowing a president’s nominees to cabinet departments and other agencies to come to a confirmation vote. The president’s right to assemble an executive team without encountering ideological litmus tests from the Senate is fundamental, as history shows. From the Eisenhower to the Ford administrations, there were no filibusters of executive nominees. Over the next 32 years, there were 20.

But since President Obama took office, there have been an unprecedented 16, including one for the secretary of defense, a first, and a new low. Determined to erect stumbling blocks at every step, Republicans have delayed cabinet secretaries and agency leaders for months, hectoring them with hundreds of questions and imposing holds for reasons having nothing to do with fitness for office. The Treasury secretary, Jack Lew, had to answer 444 written questions, more than the previous seven nominees for that position combined. Gina McCarthy, nominated to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, was given more than 1,000 questions and has been blocked by a Republican senator for more than four months, the longest delay in the agency’s history.

Thomas Perez, the nominee for labor secretary, has been delayed for 120 days. And already several senators are planning to give a hard time to anyone Mr. Obama nominates to lead the Homeland Security Department.

The most brazen example has been the effort to destroy two legally created agencies that Republicans dislike: the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the National Labor Relations Board. Republicans have, for years, refused to confirm Mr. Obama’s nominees for board members or the bureau’s director, knowing that neither agency can properly operate without permanent leaders.

“No one has anything against the person,” Mr. Reid said in an interview on Monday. “They just don’t like the agency. They want the Labor Department and the N.L.R.B. to go away.” Without a leader, the latter will on Aug. 1.

The senators who have abused their office in this way are furious that Mr. Reid is proposing to change the Senate rules by majority vote in mid-session if seven nominees are not given votes. The minority leader, Mitch McConnell, has accused Mr. Reid of threatening to “blow the Senate up,” and his staff actually sent out a cartoon of Mr. Reid’s tombstone with the inscription, “Killed the Senate.”

A mid-session rules change like this one is a potentially dangerous act, one that Republicans would certainly take much further in retaliation should they retake the Senate. Already party members are threatening random acts of obstruction should Democrats exercise the option.

But this is a precedent worth setting. Whether Republican or Democrat, a president should get a vote on executive appointments, giving nominees a chance to make a case to a simple majority that they are fit for office. The American people have come to detest Congress for its contentiousness and inaction. On Tuesday, the Senate has a chance to begin restoring its reputation.