The Contemporary Presidency: Parties, Process, and Presidential Power: Learning from Confirmation Politics in the U.S. Senate. (Features)

Article excerpt

According to the Brookings Institution, it has taken the Senate longer to confirm subcabinet nominees with each successive administration since President Kennedy's (Loomis 2001). Political scientists have spent little time analyzing why this is the case (see Nokken and Sala 2000; McCarty and Razaghian 1999; Binder and Maltzman forthcoming; and Mackenzie 2001 for some notable exceptions). Yet because confirming nominees includes many elements of the legislative process--such as policy, politics, and procedure--it is a natural laboratory that requires more attention.

During the first six months of 2001, I served on the Presidential Transition and on the White House staff, helping to coordinate the Senate confirmations for members of the Bush administration. This experience provided me a ringside seat to many of the power relationships political scientists study and debate. This article draws on what I saw and experienced during my White House tenure, using it as a participatory window to examine and shed new light on several key questions vigorously debated among political scientists.

Moreover, I was on hand in the midst of the Jeffords party switch that tipped the balance of control in the Senate, and this provided me with an invaluable pretest-posttest environment to observe the confirmation process under conditions of unified and split party government.

This article focuses on three issues currently actively debated among political scientists: (1) Do parties matter? (2) Is the slowness of the confirmation process another form of legislative gridlock, and do institutional rules play a role in this phenomenon? and (3) How do presidents influence Congress through the confirmation process, and do these strategies change under conditions of unified versus split party control?

Do Parties Matter? Yes. Well ... Some of the Time

The role of political parties in the Congress has been actively debated over the past decade. And while most of the theoretical and empirical research has focused on the role of parties in the House of Representatives, party leaders in the Senate play a unique and important role in the Republican and Democratic caucuses.

Some scholars argue forcefully and persuasively that parties do not have an independent impact on the behavior of legislators (see, for example, Krehbiel 1991, 1993; Krehbiel and Wiseman 2001; Mayhew 1974). Instead, members act in accordance with their policy preferences, and political party leaders in Congress adopt the positions of the median legislator in their caucus. So instead of manipulating legislators to adopt nonmedian "party leadership" positions, leaders adopt policy to comport with the median position of the caucus. Bond and Fleisher (2000, 31) summarized the views of scholars like Keith Krehbiel, who have said that because they are "too weak to ensure cohesion of their members, the majority does not have a great advantage over the minority," and that therefore parties can be ignored.

Others believe parties are much more consequential (see, for example, Aldrich and Rohde 2000; Cox and McCubbins 1992; Sinclair 1983, 1997). These scholars argue the tools available to majority and minority party leaders are not the same and that majority party leaders systematically use this asymmetry in power (agenda control, rules of debate, and timing of votes) to skew policy away from the median chamber position and toward the median of the majority party (Bond and Fleisher 2000, 32). Studying the Senate confirmation process provides some new insights into this debate.

Help from the President's Party

Whether or not party leaders pack any political potency, the president and the White House staff think and behave as if they do. In the first few months of the Bush administration, White House officials routinely called on Senate Republican party leaders to help shake loose troubled nominees and hasten their path toward confirmation. …