An up-or-down vote on nominees isn't too much to ask

Sen. Harry Reid isn’t asking for anything unreasonable.

In the gridlocked, fight-to-a-draw Washington, D.C., that currently exists, he’s seeking something extremely fair, in fact.

Reid wants Republicans to agree to give President Barack Obama’s executive branch nominees up-or-down votes on the Senate floor. If not, Reid said Monday that he’d lead a push — starting today — to change Senate rules to allow those nominations to be decided based on simple majority vote.

(The Senate’s filibuster rules allow senators to block nearly anything by threatening to filibuster, which means Reid needs 60 votes in order to get down to business. But those rules can be changed.)

Reid is not — and this must be stressed — talking about changing the rules for anything other than executive branch nominations (think Cabinet secretaries, their deputies and heads of federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency or the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau). Minority Republicans could still filibuster judicial nominations. And they could still filibuster regular legislation.

“Every president has the right to choose his own team,” Reid said in an interview Monday. “The status quo simply is not working.”

That status quo has seen 16 of President Obama’s nominees blocked from having a vote on the Senate floor. By contrast, all previous presidents combined have only had 20 executive-branch nominees filibustered, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Filibusters have become more and more common as the Senate has become more and more politically polarized. Once used only to block the most objectionable or controversial legislation, filibusters — or, more particularly, the threat of them — are everyday occurrences now. Reid is fond of pointing out that when then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson, D-Texas, was majority leader (1955-1961), there was one filibuster. Reid took over as majority leader in 2007 and has faced 413.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing; filibusters can be an important tool for the minority to stop objectionable legislation or unqualified nominees from moving forward. Used judiciously, it’s a fail-safe on democracy, a safety valve to buy time and get the majority to reconsider its position.

Certainly Reid argued that position when his party was in the minority, and majority Republicans threatened to change the rules to ease the confirmation of judicial nominations of President George W. Bush. And Democrats filibustered four of Bush’s Cabinet or sub-Cabinet nominees — far fewer than Obama’s 16, but enough to acknowledge both sides have engaged in this particular tactic.

The Democratic change of heart might be motivated by the fact that they’re now in the majority, but that doesn’t mean changing the rules — for nominations only — is the wrong thing to do. Letting agencies and whole Cabinet departments go without leadership is unacceptable. And it’s especially egregious where Republicans object to an agency, not a nominee. That’s the case with Richard Cordray, tapped by Obama to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. GOP senators have conceded Cordray is qualified, but they’re unhappy with the powers and duties of his agency.

Ditto for the nominees pending for the National Labor Relations Board, which can’t function without new nominees. Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., actually said an “inoperable” NLRB would be considered “progress.” Sadly, Graham isn’t the only one who considers grinding government agencies into fecklessness to be a win. For the rest of the country, however, it’s more akin to political anarchy.

Reid was set to attend a rare joint caucus meeting in the Old Senate Chambers in the Capitol on Monday night, in the hopes of avoiding a confrontation over the filibuster rules today. Here’s hoping cooler heads prevail and Republicans allow the president’s nominees to move forward to votes.

If not, Reid must make good on his promise and change the filibuster rules as they pertain to executive branch nominees. Because the limited change he’s asking for is utterly reasonable.

Steve Sebelius is a Las Vegas Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@