Political Dysfunction and American Diplomacy: It’s Time to Start Voting on Nominees Again

Here is something that the United States cannot do to address the recent flood of Central American children streaming through Mexico to our southern border. We cannot have the U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala, where a large number of the children are coming from, meet with Guatemalan officials to try to find solutions at the source. We cannot do this because we do not have a United States Ambassador in Guatemala.

President Obama’s nomination for the ambassador to Guatemala, Todd D. Robertson, is currently before the Senate, along with 42 other ambassadorial appointments. This means that more than 25 percent of the countries in the world do not have an American ambassador. And this is a problem because, as John Kerry recently commented, “we are going without our strongest voices on the ground every day in more than 25% of the world.”

The nominations are held up in the Senate, where archaic rules allow a single dissenter to prevent a quick, up-or-down vote on an ambassador-level nomination. There have been some concerns expressed by Republicans on the quality of Obama’s nominees, though 35 of the 43 have been approved by the Foreign Relations Committee. And a number of Republican senators have expressed concern over the fact that the nominees include a larger percentage of political nominees than is customary.

Democrats counter that Republicans can simply vote “no” if they do not believe a nominee is qualified and that the logjam is a direct payback for Harry Reid’s earlier rule change eliminating the filibuster option for judicial nominees.

To put it another way, neither Senate Democrats nor Senate Republicans are primarily interested in making American foreign policy work. Both parties see vacant ambassadorships as a way to make a point about something else: Obama’s incompetence, Harry Reid’s heavy handedness, Republican intransigence, Democratic arrogance, and so on.

“It’s a bipartisan failure of the Senate,” according to Bib Silverman, president of the American Foreign Service Association.

“It’s a Senate leadership problem … at the top. They just don’t see eye to eye, there are blowups, they don’t get along, they’re not able to agree on things that used to be routine.”

It’s even worse than that. In a lot of cases, they cannot even agree on their ability to disagree.

The Constitution gives the Senate the right to “advise and consent” on major executive nominations. For most of American history, this has meant that the Senate votes to approve nominees that it accepts and to reject nominees that it does not.

However, we have now gone so far down the procedural rabbit hole that up-or-down votes almost never occur. Instead, we get floor delays, filibusters, consent agendas, and single-senator holds that turn the qualifications of nominees into irrelevant distractions. At the center of the process now are power-plays that only a handful of people on either side even pretend to understand.

This is unacceptable. Partisan divisions aside, the United States of America must interact with the rest of the world as a single country–and this means staffing embassies and sending out ambassadors.

Otherwise, the most powerful nation in the world isn’t just losing the game; it isn’t even stepping up to the plate.