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Appointments And The Evolving Constitutional Crisis

When a politician writes an op-ed, it's usually death. Barney Frank, on the other hand, is unusually interesting for an elected official, and his op-ed today is worth your time:

[Richard] Cordray is just the latest capable, dedicated public servant to fall victim to a Republican mugging. He joins Joseph Smith, the banking commissioner of North Carolina who recently drew unanimous bipartisan support from the North Carolina General Assembly for his renomination; Peter Diamond, a Nobel laureate in economics who was nominated to serve on the Federal Reserve System’s Board of Governors; and others as collateral damage of the Senate Republicans’ war on financial regulation in particular and the Obama presidency in general. Cordray’s record as attorney general of Ohio puts him in a small group of people able to act effectively to deal with the mortgage crisis. No one has raised any questions about his intelligence, integrity or dedication.
Yet his nomination will not even be fairly considered by the full Senate. Forty-four Republicans have announced that in disregard of their constitutional duty to consider nominations on the merits. They will not confirm anyone until the Senate majority reverses itself to once again put bank regulators in a position to overrule virtually all of the policies that would be set by the consumer agency. The president is being told that the price of having a nominee confirmed is reversing himself on a major policy initiative that has already been enacted.

I have a slightly less moralistic take on this than Frank does. What we have here is another gap between rules and norms. The rules say that the Senate can block large swaths of executive branch appointees for any reason it chooses. Social norms say the Senate should let the president confirm administrative appointees who share his views, blocking only the most corrupt, incompetent, drunk, or extreme cases.

It's hard to begrudge the opposition party for playing within the rules, not the norms. And the truth is that there's little reason for the opposition to stop playing it this way. Republicans are saying they won't confirm anybody to run the Consumer Protection Agency unless Democrats agree to weaken financial regulations. Democrats could just as easily tell Rick Perry they won't confirm a single economic official unless he agrees to end the Bush tax cuts for the rich.

In a recent TRB column, I argued that we're headed for an era of more or less regular crises stemming from the system's reliance on social norms, not rules, to continue to basic functioning of the government. What Frank describes today is one more signpost on a journey that, frighteningly, is closer to the beginning than the end.