Jonathan Bernstein: What's good for the Pentagon may be bad for the Senate

Jonathan Bernstein, Bloomberg Opinion on

Published in Op Eds

The Senate finally approved three important military promotions, including the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. of the Air Force. That’s a victory for the Pentagon, but the way it happened is a defeat not only for the Senate but for competent government.

Some background: In addition to hundreds of judicial and executive-branch nominees, the Senate must also confirm thousands of military promotions each year. Normally this is a pro-forma exercise, with large groups considered together in a single voice vote. That requires the unanimous consent of all 100 senators — and for months Senator Tommy Tuberville has been blocking such a vote in protest of the Pentagon’s abortion policy. Tuberville, an Alabama Republican, is also filibustering individual promotions, so they can’t be rapidly approved by a series of voice votes.

Instead, the process takes considerable time — it two took days for the Senate to confirm these three promotions. That helps explain why Majority Leader Chuck Schumer had resisted moving forward on them: Now that the highest-profile nominations are no longer pending, media attention will likely wane, thereby reducing pressure on Tuberville to allow the rest of the promotions to go through. And yet those promotions are also important, and the failure to confirm them is causing real harm to the U.S. military.

But the holds of military promotions are even worse in full context. Many Republicans say they are opposed to Tuberville’s maneuver, but they’re doing essentially the same thing to President Joe Biden’s executive-branch and judicial nominations. Senator J.D. Vance of Ohio, for example, unhappy about the federal indictments of former president Donald Trump, has placed holds on nominees for U.S. attorney. As with military promotions, those are usually cleared by voice vote or unanimous consent.

And while those are only two senators, Republicans in general are forcing time-consuming procedures to confirm almost every executive-branch and judicial nomination. It amounts to a massive bulk filibuster, making it impossible to fill those positions promptly or, in some cases, at all. Add together the judicial, executive-branch and the military nominees, and there wouldn’t be enough hours even if Schumer held the Senate in session 24/7 for the rest of the year.

What that means in practical terms is that the Senate must pick and choose which judges, which executive-branch nominees and which military promotions will be confirmed.

That’s terrible for governing, because it means that lower-priority but still important jobs remain vacant. The current Senate executive calendar has pages and pages of these nominees — almost all of them totally non-controversial picks approved by committees without any problem — just waiting for final votes, some for six months or more. By themselves, none of them is essential. But to paraphrase a famous quote about government spending: an undersecretary here, an ambassador there, and pretty soon you’re talking the whole government. Which is to say, to run the way it’s supposed to, the government needs these people.


It’s also terrible for the Senate as an institution. The virtue of a system in which one senator can block things is that it gives him or her a means of exerting influence. Ideally, that allows for the consideration of local interests that might not otherwise be heard. In a very large democracy such as America’s, it’s an excellent way of protecting against the possibility that solutions to national problems have sharply negative local effects. But when senators overstep their role — as when Tuberville tries to use holds to impose a minority (within the chamber) view on the majority — then those procedures just can’t work. As congressional scholar Sarah Binder notes, senators are very reluctant to give up power, but at some point they may have no choice.

It’s even worse than that. The whole idea of the confirmation process is to empower the Senate and restrict the authority of the president. If the Senate doesn’t do its part, then both the presidency and the bureaucracy gain power. The government is staffed by “temporary” appointees who are responsible only to the president without any input from Congress. That empowers the White House, yes — but also makes it easier for civil servants to manipulate “acting” political appointees who don’t have the authority of Senate-confirmed officials.

That’s not an ideal way to run the executive branch. And it’s certainly not good for the military.

Unfortunately, the only solution is for Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans to rein in Tuberville and Vance — and to resist the temptation to block Biden’s picks. By declining to exercise their power now, they can help preserve it for when the Senate really needs it in the future.


©2023 Bloomberg L.P. Visit bloomberg.com/opinion. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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