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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!

Senate Democrats Should Put Republicans to Work

The choice for Senate Republicans is two or more years of sitting on their hands or getting to work with Democrats.

Early this congress, Mitch McConnell pressed for a commitment from Democrats: that they wouldn’t kill the filibuster. He did this for leverage in negotiating the rules for a divided Senate, though the key senators voiced their opposition to removing the filibuster outside of that negotiation. While Democrats have the upper hand thanks to Vice President Harris’ casting vote, the day-to-day of the Senate is evenly divided and McConnell wanted assurance that Republicans would keep a check on a Democratic government.

This standoff is predicated on the idea that Republicans as a bloc, lacking any real policy goals, aren’t so interested in legislating. They can afford to stifle America for years at a time without punishment from their base, who are preoccupied with narrow issues like guns and taxes. There’s little risk to the base because they’re all blindfolded and gagged and drugged (those supplements have to do something, right?) in the right-wing media hideout, being held captive. There is a reason that McConnell framed his determination to undermine Democratic policy as “100% focused.” He doesn’t have anything better to do.

This is key to thwarting the McConnell gambit: give the receptive members of his caucus something better to do! Whether it’s fencepainting, Tom-Sawyer-style, or if it’s finding the key issues that excite senators from places like Nebraska who, while they did help the Republicans pack the Supreme Court, still believe in America. Give them something better than what McConnell offers them, which is to do a fat lot of nothing, whether they hold the majority or not.

In the recent House vote on the 6 January commission, 17% of Republicans voted for sanity. That would translate to about 8 Republicans in the Senate, assuming similar levels of support for reality. That would be enough to see some bipartisanship, if the Democrats are prepared to cultivate and reward it. But they have to find their colleagues intriguing legislation to push. Things that will get them reelected against Democratic challengers, even.

They won’t switch parties, and the agenda will not steamroll ahead even with their support, but you can craft a manageable bipartisan vote on enough legislation this way. Yes, you may need to employ some dependency-ordering algorithms from open source projects to construct the legislative calendar so that all bets are paid in the right order, but it is doable.

But the alternative is to continue to deal with the Republicans’ cowardly leaders, who do not care about America’s fate. Better to see those who do get reelected and grow in prominence than to try to fight away the dumb beasts only to have them get dumber and dumber each time their primary voters respawn them.

Many Senate Republicans do not want to waste the next year or so. They want to be productive. Their non-base constituents want them to be, too. They want to spend their time wisely, getting things done that will benefit their states and the nation. The Democrats can offer them that opportunity, through bipartisan bill-crafting.

Certain policies will be harder to craft with Republican support in mind. Those policies are vital to the health and welfare and security of our nation, but the base has been convinced that reasonable measures would destroy the fabric of space-time. There’s a reason why a no-duh policy like negotiating Medicare drug prices hasn’t been passed, despite the fact that the federal government, no less than Donald John Trump’s administration, negotiated prices and purchases for four separate vaccines.

That’s the same pharma lobby that brought us the opioid epidemic that has killed thousands of Americans and ruined families and lives. Who stole away parents and siblings and children from America. Those same lobbyists are the ones who keep drug prices artificially high. Hooray!

And McConnell would rather block any Democratic action than do something about it. And some Democratic senators would rather not give America a fair deal on drugs, because they get campaign funds from those pharma companies. But if some of those Nebraska Republican senators want to, they might be able to push a bill over the top.

There are other issues like that. They aren’t the major priorities, but if the Senate can stop listening to the hypnotic drone of the likes of McConnell, if enough Republican senators want to get some things done, tomorrow we can do far more together than we could ever do with people like McConnell dividing us.

Good Senator, Bad Senator

There’s a natural balance required between the two senators of a state that informs who might win.

The trope and tactic of good cop, bad cop is well known, and it can be useful as an interrogation technique though there are other ways to use the same underlying methods more effectively. It does make for interesting narrative tension.

But this is about the Senate and how each state has two senators. In general, there is a balance and tension formed by the two seats. They are a kind of contrast, a kind of equilibrium exists between them. One is more liberal, the other more moderate, in liberal states and times. Or one is more out there, the other more reserved, personality-wise. Or the one is big on policy and pork, a workhorse, while the other stands out in rhetoric and publicity.

It is through that lens that one should look at someone like Mo Brooks running to replace someone like Richard Shelby.

The long-standing balance of the Alabama Senate delegation was Shelby who is more of the workhorse, head-down type and Jeff Sessions who was more in the mold of shock-jock big-mouths.

That was actually among the factors that made Doug Jones’ reelection efforts harder: he was very much a workhorse-style moderate Democrat. That’s not to say being more liberal would have saved him, but it is to say that one of the strategies that might have helped would be finding a way to somehow counterbalance Shelby.

The why of the phenomenon involves contrast and dichotomy. The electorate needs to be able to tell its senators apart. If a pair of identical twins with identical politics both sought the twin seats for a state, only one would ever stay, even if their politics perfectly aligned and reflected the state. There wouldn’t be enough contrast.

But differentiation is not the only part of it. It also involves power-sharing. The electorate’s various subgroups accept a candidate they don’t want in one seat if it means the other has someone they do want. One picks the restaurant, the other the entertainment, that kind of thing.

If both senators are too much in the same mold, some factions will feel like their position is under threat, that they aren’t getting enough of a say. It’s hard to endure that kind of humiliation if you’re a group that has actual political power: they don’t get to pick both the meal and the movie.

I’m sure political strategists try to find these balances, but it’s much less about finding them than creating them or selling them. If Mo Brooks wanted that seat, he should have modelled his elections and his congressional record to fit that contrast. He didn’t, so while some may think he’s got the seat, his odds aren’t so great.

Now, something else can happen in these situations. Perhaps the shock-jock voting bloc will prefer Brooks’ schtick to Tuberville’s. If so, they might elect Brooks and see to it that Tuberville gets replaced. Or Tuberville might get remade into something that contrasts with Brooks more.

In other states, in other races, these things do happen. A junior senator can become senior for a variety of reasons, and in doing so, in places that prize the familiar, being senior might be enough to keep getting reelected. The contrast onus is on the junior.

(And for the record, part of the reason Donald John Trump was so popular among Republicans was his apparent contrast, perhaps including his weird facial makeup.)