WASHINGTON — John Kerry is practically home alone at the State Department, toiling without permanent assistant secretaries of state for the Middle East, Asia, Europe and Africa. At the Pentagon, a temporary personnel chief is managing furloughs for 800,000 civilian employees. There has not been a director of the Internal Revenue Service since last November, and it was only on Thursday that President Obama announced a nomination for commerce secretary after the job was open for nearly a year. [...]There's no one in the top embassy security and counterterrorism posts in the State Department right now, but what are key Republican senators obsessing about? Not making sure that there's actually someone in charge of embassy security, but creating a scandal and conspiracy theories about a Benghazi cover-up. Which was a failure of embassy security. Sigh.
The White House faults an increasingly partisan confirmation process in the Senate and what officials say are over-the-top demands for information about every corner of a nominee’s life. Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew received 444 questions from senators before his confirmation, more than the seven previous Treasury nominees combined, according to data compiled by the White House. Gina McCarthy, Mr. Obama’s nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, got 1,000 questions from the Senate, White House officials said. [...]
But members of Congress and a number of agency officials say the bottleneck is at the White House, where nominees remain unannounced as the legal and personnel offices conduct time-consuming background checks aimed at discovering the slightest potential problem that could hold up a confirmation. People who have gone through the vetting in Mr. Obama’s White House describe a grueling process, lasting weeks or months, in which lawyers and political operatives search for anything that might hint at scandal.
It's not hard to see why President Obama has allowed Republican obstruction to grind the nomination process to a halt. An already risk-averse White House is going to try to avoid giving any ammunition to Republicans, which means a long, drawn-out vetting process for every nominee. On the judiciary front, Republicans have even stopped participating in putting forward qualified nominees. At a certain point, you can see the White House saying "why bother, why make nominations a priority?" How many nominees can you put through the frustration of a months, or even years-long wait in the Senate. How many nominees can be piled up in the Senate, waiting for action?
On the other hand, President Obama could make this a real fight. He could put forward nominations for every single vacancy and then make daily noise about how those nominees are being blocked by Republicans, and how that is making government not function. And blame it, every single day, on the Republicans. The only thing that will make Republicans stop their obstruction is if they have to pay a bigger political price for it. And the only way to make them pay that price is by shining a bright light on how destructive they are.
Well, that and real filibuster reform. And that's where a major fight over nominations could help, too, by making them a top priority and forcing the issue with the Democrats in the Senate. Because it is within their power to stop the obstruction.