Friday, May 17, 2013

A too-perfect metaphor for Washington's mortal combat

There was a fascinating story out of Duluth a few days ago about two bald eagles that fell to earth while fighting.  An expert quoted in the story said each bird apparently had its talons so firmly embedded in the other's flesh that they could not disengage in time to avoid crashing into the ground.

The story struck me as an all-too-perfect metaphor for the current state of things between the executive and legislative branches of our national government. We seem to have reached the point where the fight is more important than anything else, including, perhaps, the survival and functioning of the government itself.

A few items of evidence:
  • The New York Times last Saturday published a story on delays in the confirmation process for Obama administration nominees to cabinet positions, judgeships and other policymaking positions in the government. "Nominees at all levels of Washington’s bureaucracy — 117 of them in all, including cabinet secretaries, judges and members of obscure oversight boards — are facing delays," reporter Jeremy Peters wrote. "Just last week, the Senate confirmed David Medine, the president’s choice to lead the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. The time between his nomination and confirmation was 510 days. Every Republican voted no."
  • When Treasury Secretary Jack Lew requested the resignation of the head of the IRS this week, the head that rolled was that of the acting commissioner of the tax agency. Steven Miller had been acting commissioner since November, when the last confirmed commissioner, a George W. Bush appointee, finished his five-year term. And when Obama named a replacement for Miller, it was a new acting commissioner, who is to serve until the end of the calendar year. Presumably then the president will nominate a real commissioner, who whom the Senate will have to approve, perhaps on the 12th of Never. 
  • On Thursday, Sri Srinivasan, an Obama nominee to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, won the unanimous endorsement of the Senate Judiciary Committee. If he wins confirmation by the full Senate, Srinivasan will be the first person confirmed to that important judicial panel since 2006. Four of the court's 11 positions are vacant. Another Obama nominee withdrew after waiting two years for a Senate vote on her nomination.
  • The average time for Senate confirmation votes on Obama judicial nominees is now 116 days, three times longer than was the case for George W. Bush.
Obviously, the blame for this state of affairs is not evenly distributed. But equally obvious is that the government cannot possibly be operating at maximal efficiency if large numbers of policymaking positions remain vacant for months, even years. But for the GOP, that probably is the idea. Not only does it frustrate the Obama agenda, but it assures that the party's mantra of big, inefficient federal government will remain true.

Meantime, for the American people, the ground looms ever larger as the executive eagle and the legislative one grapple, each trying to destroy the other.

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