Sen. Lamar Alexander a Problem-Solver Turned Partisan Warrior

May 14, 2013
Guest Post

by Norman J. Ornstein, Resident Scholar, American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann are authors of It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism. 

Few members of the Senate have professed more concern about dysfunction in the nomination and confirmation process than Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). Alexander is a wonk who cares about policy-making and problem solving. And, most importantly, it gets personal with Lamar -- he had his own unpleasant experience with the Senate's long-broken confirmation process when he came up as a nominee for Secretary of Education. Commendably, Lamar worked in a bipartisan fashion last year, with Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and others to streamline the process by removing a number of lower level executive nominees from the requirement for Senate confirmation.

What has happened to that Lamar Alexander? His persona seems to have been kidnapped and replaced by partisan warrior Lamar Alexander, participating in a series of abuses of the confirmation process that are both denying a president elected by a wide margin from selecting his own people to serve and attempting to block agencies from being able to function by filibustering or applying blanket holds to clearly qualified nominees -- what Tom Mann and I have called the new nullification.

We have seen the latter both with the NLRB, ever since Obama became president in 2009, and the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the agency charged with implementing Obamacare, since the Affordable Care Act was enacted. Faced with the prospect of a National Labor Relations Board actually functioning and making decisions that reflected the majority, Republicans in the Senate filibustered to block any nominees, no matter how qualified, to prevent the agency from having a quorum. Frustrated after a long period of such behavior, Obama used recess appointments to get the agency working-- and then had to deal with a sweeping appeals court decision, written by the highly partisan judge David Sentelle, the same judge who fired competent and fair-minded Whitewater Independent Counsel Robert Fiske and replaced him with Kenneth Starr, outlawing almost all recess appointments. The decision is under appeal, but Alexander is calling for the removal of Obama-named commissioners, and also calling for them to be blocked from re-nomination in the future, before the court case has been finally litigated. 

At the same time, we are seeing a slew of other nominees, including many district court and appeals court nominations, blocked by holds and filibuster threats-- far more, as a new Congressional Research Service report shows, than under any previous president. And when nominees for agencies or courts do move, it is after unprecedented delays. The Senate finally confirmed a leader for the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, an important recommendation of the 9/11 Commission-- over the objection of every Republican, and after nearly a year-and-a-half block following his nomination. And we are also seeing unprecedented actions to cripple or block Cabinet nominations, previously a rarity.

Both parties have been guilty in the past of misusing the confirmation process for political gain. But we have never seen anything like this. And instead of standing against the abuses, Lamar is participating in way too many of them. We need the old Lamar Alexander back, the one whose principle concern was making public policy, and who voiced strong support for the right of a president to have his designated people in place-- while decrying the damage to the country of partisan hackery on this front. Come home, Lamar!

[image via Talk Radio News Service]