In divided government, obstructionist tactics on both sides of the political aisle are commonplace. Previous posts on this site have pointed this out. Parties and legislators use run-of-the-mill legislation and action to delay or frustrate efforts from the opposing political party or the president. The legislation or action may have little to do with what is being opposed; it merely acts as an opportunity for one side to try and get what they want from the other side. The use of the filibuster, a demonstration used to block or delay legislative action, is a common tactic. The sixteen-day long government shutdown in 2013 is an extreme example of modern day obstruction.
While real and significant issues are being debated in these political exchanges, there are tangible and potentially harmful consequences to obstruction. One consequence of obstruction and divided government is the delay of appointments to the executive branch. Each congressional session, the president nominates and the Senate confirms hundreds of individuals to work in the executive branch. Over 100 civilian appointments wait for the Senate’s approval today, including President Obama’s Attorney General appointment, Loretta Lynch. Another consequence is agency shutdown. Currently, the funding of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is at risk; if Congress does not reach a deal this week, the DHS will be shut down with many individuals, such as airport security officers, going without pay.
Before going further, it is important to understand the structure and purpose of the United States bureaucracy. The executive branch consists of several entities. The Executive Office of the President advises and assists the president in completing his responsibilities. The cabinet includes the fifteen executive departments, such as the Department of Education, that oversee the implementation of the law. The executive branch also consists of independent agencies, created by Congress to exist outside of the cabinet structure such as the CIA, independent regulatory commissions, and government corporations, which provide a government service at a cost such as the U.S. Postal Service. This visual illustrates the organization of the executive branch.
The federal bureaucracy serves many purposes. Primarily, the bureaucracy puts laws, once passed by Congress and signed by the president, into action. The implementation and application of laws gives the bureaucracy a very important role. The decisions they make affect our daily lives: from the education loans we receive to attend college and the food that we eat, to the medications that we take and the speed at which we drive our cars. All of this is regulated, in some way, by bureaucracy on the national, state, or local level. The bureaucracy consists of individuals with specialized knowledge organized by a hierarchy of authority; they ensure that law, products, and services are applied with consistency, transparency, and fairness. Thus, delay in the appointment process and the defunding of a government agency can be dangerous to the health and efficiency of our government system.
As my own research indicates, bureaucratic appointments in periods of divided government from 1999-2010 took approximately 18% more time to be confirmed than in periods of unified government. Loretta Lynch’s nomination is no exception. The president nominated Lynch at the beginning of January; her appointment was stalled in the Judiciary committee for over a month. Though she was voted out of the Judiciary Committee in late February, her nomination lies pending on the Senate executive calendar, waiting for a full vote of the Senate. The vote could happen quickly or it could meet further delay. Lynch’s appointment delay has been chalked up to a battle between the Republican controlled Congress and President Obama on many fronts, but specifically over the issue of immigration.
While the Senate oversees the bureaucracy through the appointment process, the most important form of bureaucratic oversight the legislative branch possesses is the power of the purse. The Senate approves the budget of the fifteen cabinet departments, including the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The DHS plays a vital function in the United States, securing our borders and protecting our airports and costal waters. Here too, the Republican controlled Congress seeks to reign in Obama’s executive action on immigration. Specifically, they seek to fund the agency with the exception of Obama’s programs to provide amnesty to undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
Obama’s executive action on immigration is a real, important issue that can and should be debated. In doing so, however, the Republican controlled Congress uses presidential nominations and the power of the purse to delay and inhibit important governmental work. While these tactics are not unique in American history, they have distinct consequences in today’s globalized world.
- Funding Homeland Security: Where Do We Go From Here?
- Congress Agrees to Maintain Homeland Security Funding – For A Week
- US avoids homeland security shutdown as House passes bill
- Congressional Black Caucus steps up Loretta Lynch confirmation push
- Lynch clears committee with three GOP votes
- Loretta Lynch’s immigration roadblock
- Loretta Lynch’s delayed vote over confirmation
- Republicans delay Loretta Lynch, accuse Democrats of ‘faux outrage’
- Republicans Block Reappointment of CBO Chief Doug Elmendorf