It's one of those stories that might be a minor issue in a normal presidential administration but takes on alarming implications in the era of Donald Trump: The Hill reports that Senate Republicans under Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are considering changing the rules for confirming appointees to both federal agencies and the district courts, drastically reducing the amount of time that senators get to question the people Trump wants to entrust with these powerful positions.
Republicans are considering shrinking debate for non-Cabinet federal nominees down from 30 hours to just eight, and limiting debate on district judges to two hours apiece.
To be clear, it's not that unusual to shorten debate time on nominations, and Senate Democrats made a similar rule change in 2013 — though only for that session of Congress. The current proposal, offered by Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., would be a more permanent change so that rubber-stamping Trump nominees could be the practice not just this year but for as long as Trump holds office. But the larger concern is not just that this would be a long-term rules change being proposed, but who, exactly, would benefit: A president who has been quite clear that incompetence is no obstacle to nomination -- and that being opposed to the mission of the office you wish to run is a bonus.
"What we need is not less time, but more time, based on what we’ve seen over and over," Sasha Buchert, a staff attorney at Lambda Legal, told Salon. "The judicial nominees we’ve seen are so bad, and every day there’s something new that’s revealed. It’s a similar issue with the executive nominations, unfortunately."
With Senate Republicans eager to simply vote in everyone Trump tosses their way, the only way to stop at least some of the worst nominees is to make the confirmation process a public spectacle that forces withdrawal from sheer embarrassment. Buchert pointed to cases like that of Matthew Petersen, who withdrew his nomination to be a district judge after the confirmation hearing exposed that he was incapable of answering basic questions most first-year law students could handle.
Buchert also flagged the case of Eric Dreiband, a lawyer who spent his career defending employers in discrimination cases, whom Trump nominated to be the head of the Justice Department's civil rights division. The longer confirmation process gave human rights groups time to raise the alarm and so far, Dreiband's confirmation seems stalled. But shortening debate might make it easier for troublesome nominees to slide through.
Drew McConville, a senior managing director at The Wilderness Society, linked the proposal to limit debate to the Trump administration's larger hostility toward any kind of public accountability.
"Time after time, we’re seeing the administration look to undermine opportunities for public input," McConville said. “Unfortunately, the administration has shown itself in the first year to put special interests above the public interest.”
McConville noted that over the past year, environmental activists have documented a downturn in public comment opportunities, the disbanding of advisory committees, and an apparent decision to ignore public opinion on issues like protecting national monuments — in favor of doing whatever oil and gas companies want. Instead, a cult of secrecy has become ingrained in the Trump administration, particularly at the Interior Department and the EPA, and the public is being shut out of important decisions that affect it directly.
"The fact that the GOP Senate conference is reacting to Trump's comically unqualified nominees by streamlining the process really should end 'When will Republicans start standing up to Trump?' discussions," said Scott Lemieux, a political science lecturer at the University of Washington.
He added that "getting conservative judges and executive branch nominees is the main thing Republicans -- both legislators and voters -- are getting from Trump," saying this attempt to fast-track the process "was probably overdetermined."
Republicans argue that the change is necessary because Trump is lagging behind his predecessors when it comes to getting appointees confirmed, at least to the federal agencies. (He's getting his judicial nominees confirmed at breakneck speed already.)
"As of Thursday, the Trump administration has had 300 nominations confirmed by the Senate, with an additional 177 currently working their way through the upper chamber's pipeline," The Hill reports. "That lags behind former President Obama who had 418 nominations confirmed by the Senate at the same time, while former President George W. Bush had 493 and former President Clinton had 471."
But while Republicans want to blame Democrats for this, the reality is far more complicated. As NPR reports, the Trump administration has failed to file paperwork quickly and completely, which is hanging up a lot of nominees. Also, as The Washington Post tracker indicates, a huge part of the problem is that the administration isn't too hasty with its nominations, either. By this point in his presidency, Obama had sent 640 nominations to the Senate. George W. Bush had sent 616. Trump has only sent 477 so far.
Still, the larger issue is competence. Trump has an unmistakable tendency to pick appointees who oppose the mission of the agency they are slated to manage. In many cases, these picks have been laughably unqualified. Sam Clovis, Trump's initial pick to be chief scientist at the USDA (now withdrawn), is not a scientist of any kind and had no experience with agriculture whatsoever. His pick to head NASA, Jim Bridenstine, has no background in science or engineering. That Trump isn't nominating people quickly is probably a good thing on the whole, since so many of the people he does pick clearly have no idea what they're doing.
“These positions matter," McConville said. "We’re talking about public officials who are entrusted with stewarding our public lands, protecting the air we breathe, the water we drink and so much more.”
But as with the tax reform bill, it's clear that congressional Republicans are less interested in doing something well than in cramming through a right-wing agenda at breakneck speed. It's almost as if they don't think they will get a full four-year term to enact the Trump agenda and are making this a rush job, which may not be an unreasonable assumption when the headlines are dominated by the slowly unfolding Russia scandal and Trump's dubious mental state.