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If the Senate Held Confirmation Elections

Holding nomination elections would make the Senate more democratic.

They sort of already do hold an election, but this would be a different take where the president would nominate a slate of candidates for positions subject to Senate confirmation.

Let’s start with the law. From the Constitution (Article II, Section 2):

[The president] shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law;

As far as I can tell, the president can nominate more than one person for a position. It is the duty of the Senate to provide advice, and depending on their disposition either consent or dissent, on the nominations.

And so the scheme is this:

  1. The president would nominate any number of people to fill a position.
  2. The Senate would take up that slate, hold hearings and debates, and hold an election of some design to decide which of the nominees (if any) to confirm.

Some of the analysis would depend on the exact sort of election. Would they vote on each in turn, until one got a majority? Would they use an instant-runoff ballot? It’d be entirely up to how the Senate wanted to hold the election. They could even proceed with the current process, simply going down the list in whatever order, or in a random order, only moving on the next name if the previous failed.

There are questions for how it would impact the politics of the presidency. Currently the nomination process is very double-edged. You want to accomplish some set of tasks through a nomination including patronage, furthering policy goals by having a champion in the right role, defending against criticism by having consensus players in the right spots, and sidelining more annoying VIPs (a kind of patronage that deserves special mention).

Moving to a slate-nomination system would keep those options. The president would remain free to nominate exactly one person for a position and the Senate would proceed as they have. But when nominating several, the president would be risking the Senate going against the goals of the nominations. That is, if the president is betting on a certain outcome, that’s a bet that could turn out wrong.

Even so, it would often make for better politics to nominate several persons and let the Senate do the work of the final choosing. For example, if the position is highly contested, letting the Senate choose between competing factions would help force a debate on policy rather than let them hide from it. The Senate in the modern age is notorious for not being a cooling saucer, but a dead-letter office. This would help push back on their capacity to heave stacks of policy into the incinerator.

It would also give greater support to the varied interests a president wants to be happy, if each of their favorites got a shot. Those interests would be free to stump for their favorite, and in doing so better media coverage could emerge of the particular concerns and interests. It would also dilute the focus on the president and help underline that these positions are supposed to serve multiple constituencies, and that the Senate has an active role (and deserves a share of the blame) in determining how poorly our various departments and courts are run.

Under the current politics, the media often notes only who appointed the judge or judges that made a controversial ruling, but those dopes got in there by-and-with the dopes in the Senate slapping them on the back and yuck-yucking it up. To the extent Americans pay attention to these things, seeing the election process would highlight that and would force a change in media framing.

The president would be able to message off of how many and whom he nominated. The media would remark that the president got it down to two names for this. Or put up seven for that: another let-the-Senate-figure-it-out-I’m-busy nomination! That second sort might push Congress to adjust some of the offices. There are currently 1200 political appointed positions (per Partnership for Public Service: “Political Appointment Tracker”). That’s surely too many. (That same site says only about 800 are “key roles,” but it’s a very long-winded and time-wasteful process when a year in Biden only has about a quarter of all 1200 and a third of the 800 done.)

The rest of the paragraph from the Constitution above:

but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.

In other words, Congress can cut a lot of red tape and let someone else share the burden. And they damn well should. But for the fewer Senate-confirmable positions, they could still hold elections on multiple nominees.

Another side benefit would be boosting the profile of up-and-comers in a manner similar to the bygone straw-nominations for president that used to occur at party conventions. Back then, folks who weren’t ready to run could still get a token nomination in order to boost their profile, recognize them as someone to keep on the radar. Some of the officer nominations could serve that capacity, helping cultivate the next generation.

An unlikely idea, perhaps. But as usual half the idea is showing that better ways are out there, government is subject to change, and experimentation is the key to discovering better government.

And at least it would take away one of the most-abused phrases of derision for those positions: they would no longer be unelected bureaucrats. They would be elected!

On the Government and the Theory of Democracy

With Republicans opposed to modern government, it’s worth understanding the basic mechanism of democracy.

Before elected government, there were still governments. In many places it was by the wealthy, by the church, by divine right and that was the only right. There, law was based on status—blood and force and prophecy of who could pull a sword from a stone.

And then came the idea of natural rights, that everyone should be treated with a certain respect because we are alive and that is enough status by itself.

When we speak of democracy, we’re talking about a sophisticated cycle:

  1. People choose their government.
  2. The government performs for a time.
  3. People reevaluate and repeat step 1.

This kernel of scientific government is essential to progress and to maintaining a functioning society. It attempts to strike a balance between unfettered change and conserving the old. It sets a cadence, it gives a ritual, it provides a path forward.

Those who stand in opposition to democracy are standing opposed to the basic educational loop by which we can improve society. They propose something like:

  1. People don’t choose their government. The government is whoever can grab the reins and kick everyone else off.
  2. The government does whatever the fuck it wants. (To be fair, it could be good, but if it isn’t there’s no recourse.)
  3. Ashes, ashes. We all fall down.

Then, maybe, the survivors build something out of those ashes.

But the tried-and-true loop of democratic government is superior, adaptable, dependable. Only it has a flaw. Its flaw is that we have to give up our power and we have to trust that the people will make good decisions over time. Not every time, but that on average the decisions will be better than a dictator’s, better than a business’, and better than any minority interest of any kind, religious, ethnic, whatever.

And that requires the people have a say. But there are those who are afraid of what we have to say to each other. On both sides.

Many fear the racism, the batshit conspiracy, the anti-religious zealotry of so-called Christians. Others fear the cancel culture, the spectre of communism arising from greater social welfare programs, and culture that’s not aligned with their values or tastes.

But that’s society, and that’s what we have to work with. Fear. That we might fuck it all up, and ruin it all, and be left with ashes. But, for all the resistance to Donald John Trump, the conservatives of this country have not admitted that America trusted and allowed for such a grave mistake. We afforded this ruin, including thousands upon thousands who have given up their lives to a virus that this supposed leader did not prepare to act against and that he has largely neglected to manage.

We know our lives may be lost to blunders of impetuosity by our fellow citizens, but we still believe in the cause that over time, on average, we will do better by voting, by choosing. That the flaw that allowed Donald John Trump to exist as a candidate, and then as an elected president, is the same flaw that makes our system work at all. That yes, we can fuck it all up. But no, we do not want to fuck it up, and we will strive to learn the lessons and avoid the mistakes and purge the corruption and right the ship and sail into the bloody sunset!

Anyhoo. The election is in ten short weeks.

Democracy and Faith

On the fabric of democracy.

Not the pulpit and pew kind of faith. The ideas-have-utility kind. That the basic promise of science and reason and democracy are strong enough that you don’t have to pack the court to make it work. That you don’t have to rig elections, gerrymander, or shoe-horn racist questions into the census to get your way. That kind of faith. Faith that your positions are meaningful, and generally right, and if they turn out to be wrong, you’ll change them rather than changing the subject.

Faith that we don’t have to be 100% on the first draft of a law. That we can use statistical process control to make our systems work better than trying to thread the needle. We are not Luke Skywalker, and we don’t need to be.

Faith that the people want change. And that change is easier when it’s a step at a time. That we don’t start walking. We crawl first. We can be guided by the wisdom of evolution, of experimentation.

This is a starting-point problem, in many ways. That there is a false premise that’s been introduced to our collective system. The false premise is that we should ever be acting like someone like Trump acts—not his biting insults, not his bravado, but his mere conviction is his greatest flaw. His idea, and the idea of anyone, who says they hold some special key, some Rosetta Stone. Be it the wall, or tariffs, or whatever it may be.

And that is exactly what makes Trump so sad to a majority of the nation. He rejects our system. He acts as though he has joined a dictator’s club, believes in winning at all costs, believes in none of the things most of us spent at least twelve grades learning about. The American system, imperfect, seeks out perfection. The Trump system, fatally flawed, seeks nothing beyond the next win, the extra scoop of ice cream, the adoring headline. And then lashes out when it doesn’t get it.

We should all reject that, whether it’s in the guise of a golf resort and luxury brand heckler extraordinaire or whether it’s those who say that the GND is the only and holiest of grails rather than a sketch of some things that might work. Or those who say Medicare for All, rather than let’s figure out this healthcare thing, and if it is Medicare for All, great, but if not, great. The important thing is the result and not who had the idea or that it conformed to some chant or slogan or fever dream.

Faith in democracy means pain. It meant pain when they wrote the Declaration of Independence, signing their names and risking their lives. It meant pain for generations who endured slavery waiting for the country to wake up and have a war to put an end to it. More pain struggling to gain the vote. The pain of forever knowing we hesitated in answering the call, turning away refugees and interning citizens, while Hitler took power and took land and took lives. Our nation is founded upon pain, but of faith that that pain will not be for naught. We may be stupid and slow, but we will arrive.

That’s not to say no action is necessary. Just the opposite. But it does underline the type of action. Reform does not mean retaliation. It means girding the system against wrongdoing no matter who would enact it. If the courts do become rotted by neglect of the Senate, rather than packing them, enact reforms on the nomination and confirmation process, enact changes to court procedure, and impeach any judges (and only those) who are not well-behaved.

Similar reforms in other areas, always following the lodestar of a better system and not naive interests of the moment. The destination in our common sight is not “Democrats win” or “Republicans win,” but remains “America wins, and in doing so, earth and humanity win besides.”