Scott Pruitt, the embattled director of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), still has his job in part because the White House doesn’t think it can get anyone it would want to replace him confirmed by the Senate. Gina Haspel’s nomination to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency is hanging by a thread.
Both cases are part of a larger trend: The partisan battle lines over confirmation are rapidly hardening.
When President Barack Obama took office, his first EPA director, Lisa Jackson, was confirmed without a roll-call vote. By his second term, confirmation had become more contentious: Gina McCarthy got six Republican votes. Pruitt won the votes of only two Democratic senators.
The speed of the change can also be seen in the confirmation votes for the last four secretaries of state. Condoleezza Rice, even though she was nominated at the height of the Iraq war, got 85 votes. Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, nominated during the Republican Party’s allegedly scorched-earth opposition to Obama, each got 94. But most Democrats opposed both of President Donald Trump’s nominees, Rex Tillerson and Mike Pompeo, who got 56 and 57 votes, respectively.
Several Democrats who voted against Pompeo cited his conservative views on same-sex marriage and abortion, the kind of social issue that did not keep Republicans from voting for Clinton and Kerry (or, for that matter, for Rice). It would not be surprising, though, if the next Democratic nominee to the position gets a lot of “no” votes from Senate Republicans because of these issues.
Republicans and Democrats will argue over which side is more to blame for the phenomenon, but it is indisputable that the red state/blue state divide is becoming an ever-larger factor in nomination battles. Of the six Democrats who voted for Pompeo, five are facing re-election this year in a state that Trump carried handily.
If Democrats defy the odds to take the Senate this fall, Trump will have enormous difficulty getting new nominees through. He will either have to hold on to unsatisfactory heads of Cabinet agencies or rely heavily on acting ones. The volatility of Trump’s staff will collide with the new partisanship of the confirmation process.
Some of this polarization is understandable. The EPA director can make a big difference in policy. It’s reasonable for Democrats to want to withhold their imprimatur for a conservative approach to the environment and for Republicans to want to make it harder to implement a liberal one. At the same time, these stances can lead to outcomes that both sides would see as subpar. For most Republicans and Democrats alike, an EPA director with the same views as Pruitt but better ethics would be a step up. But contemporary politics gets in the way of making that switch.
So far, presidents have usually gotten their way on Cabinet appointments even as the opposition has become more united in trying to block their nominees. The impact of the trend toward party-line votes has been limited by the fact that presidents have mostly been dealing with allied Senate majorities. Ten of the last 11 presidential elections, and all of the last seven, have delivered the White House and the Senate to the same party. The exception, the 1988 election, came before the new norm.
One of these days — and maybe in 2021 — we will have a president starting a new term with the Senate in the other party’s control. Then we will see how, and whether, an administration can function when the other side gets a veto over a lot of its top staff.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.