Filibuster reform: 'Nuclear option' melts Washington's hiring freeze

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) talks to reporters about the use of the 'nuclear option' at the U.S. Capitol November 21, 2013 in Washington, DC. The Senate voted 52-48 to invoke the so-called 'nuclear option', voting to change Senate rules on the controversial filibuster for most presidential nominations with a simple majority vote.

When the Senate gets back from its Thanksgiving recess in a couple of weeks, it's gonna be a whole new world. A simple majority -- just 51 votes -- will now suffice to get a presidential nominee to the floor for a vote by the full senate, and there are plenty of vacancies to be filled. The change has been called the "nuclear option."

We’re talking about the kind of job Mike Posner used to have. He was Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. It took him five months to get confirmed, and he says he wasn’t an outlier.

“Bureaus, senior positions in the State Department [were] not filled for months and months at a time,” he remembers. “And it really makes doing work a lot more difficult.”

Ken Salazar was President Obama’s first Secretary of the Interior, and he says the worst thing about this de facto hiring freeze has been that “you’re not able to bring the effective leadership to manage the government of the United States.”

Jobs requiring Senate confirmation have become less and less attractive, and nominees have had to wait in what Salazar calls “a very strange limbo.”

“I have seen both Democrats and Republicans who have just gotten tired of the wait, and have withdrawn their names,” he notes.

So, what happens now that the logjam is broken?

Austan Goolsbee, the chair of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, says the queue is full of mid-level appointees: “Deputy secretaries, under secretaries, assistant secretaries," he says, "who are the people that kind of have to make the trains run on time.”

Goolsbee says he expects things will move a lot less glacially now.

“I would presume they’re going to get all of those people through pretty quick.”

But the bottom line here is not that these nominees are going to get jobs, it is what they are going to do once they have them. They will make rules and regulations that will affect business and the whole economy.

Next year, for example, the Fed has three vacancies to fill, and at least one analyst is predicting that this rule change will make it much easier for the president to get his picks confirmed.

About the author

David Gura is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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