On Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee will begin hearings on President Obama's nomination of Loretta Lynch to be U.S. attorney general. Soon after, the Armed Services Committee will take up the nomination of Ashton Carter to be secretary of Defense. These nominations — and others that will follow — will be a test of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's promise to restore what he calls "regular order" to the proceedings of that body.
The Senate's power to advise and consent on presidential appointments is an important power, but in recent years senators of both parties have abused that authority to score political points at the expense of efficient government. Even after Democrats abolished the filibuster for most presidential appointments in late 2013, Republicans used other parliamentary stratagems to delay votes even on uncontroversial nominees to federal courts and ambassadorships.
The Lynch and Carter nominations seem likely to be acted on expeditiously, because of the importance of the positions and the fact that Obama settled on nominees likely to garner bipartisan support. Outgoing Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. was a lightning rod as much for his style as for the substance of his policies; he used his position as a bully pulpit to talk about the persistence of racism and seemed to relish public confrontations with critical members of Congress. Lynch, the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, is expected to strike a lower profile while pursuing similar priorities.
Even so, she can expect to be questioned aggressively about the legality of Obama's executive action to protect some immigrants from deportation, as well as Republican hobby horses such as the Internal Revenue Service's scrutiny of political activity by tea party groups and the Fast and Furious gun-running scandal. Fair enough: Confirmation hearings traditionally — and appropriately — serve as inquests into past policies as well as examinations of the views of the nominee. But when the hearings are finished, the Senate should move expeditiously to an up-or-down vote focused solely on the nominees' qualifications.
That should be the rule not only for Cabinet nominations but for those to the federal bench, to ambassadorships and to regulatory agencies. The dysfunction of the confirmation process in recent years has been a national scandal.
In a speech last year, McConnell bewailed the "theatrics and the messaging wars" that he said had cheapened the Senate. "I'm absolutely certain of one thing," he said. "The Senate can be better than it is." Prompt consideration of presidential nominees, free of partisan petulance, would be would be an important sign of self-improvement.