Bruce Ackerman on Senate confirmations

The manner of Elizabeth Warren’s new appointment was understandable, but at the same time a sign of a disturbing tendency. The Senate confirmation process has slowed to such a crawl that it is making it impossible for the executive to do its job properly. But swerving around its requirements — as the White House did by giving her two non-confirmable posts, and setting up the formal pretence than Warren will be a mere Treasury functionary — is the very opposite of the procedural simplicity and straightforwardness that Warren, in other contexts, always calls for.

Bruce Ackerman argues in this column that the problem is worse than that. An imperial presidency is emerging, he says. Most interesting is the solution he proposes. He wants the White House and the Senate to strike a grand bargain.

Here is the deal: The Senate should change its rules to require an up-or-down vote on all executive branch appointments within 60 days. In exchange, the president should sign legislation to require Senate approval of all senior White House appointments. By reaching this agreement, the president regains the powers to govern effectively and the Senate regains its authority to approve all major appointments—regardless of their location in the executive branch.

This grand bargain requires both sides to give up the petty privileges of the existing system. Senators will lose their power to hold up nominations to blackmail the administration into approving their pet projects. Presidents will lose their ability to appoint super-loyalists who can’t convince 51 senators that they merit powerful White House positions. But the rest of us will profit greatly from the reinvigoration of the founding principle of checks-and-balances for a new century.

Good idea.

Aside from the question of how the job is packaged or disguised or however you want to put it, will Warren be any good? I like her. Unquestionably, she is qualified. She listens to what banks and other financial-services firms tell her with entirely appropriate scepticism. But I think she may underestimate the political difficulty of protecting consumers not just from predatory lenders but (here is the larger problem) from themselves. To put it another way, one man’s predatory lender is another’s supplier of credit to the disadvantaged. The government can and should insist on loan terms that are intelligible to people of ordinary intelligence. Telling people they cannot afford to borrow as much as they choose is unlikely to go down so well.

This FT editorial on the appointment gets it about right.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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