Not to spend too much time on confirmations, but it really is stunning to think about how many people the Senate is responsible for confirming. The Washington Post's Al Kamen points out that there are still 43 Senate-confirmable jobs open in Cabinet-level agencies (out of a total of 369), and at Foreign Policy, Josh Rogin notes that there are more than 180 nominees awaiting action from the Senate.
It's easy to shrug and accept the broken confirmation system as inevitable, but the fact is that it hasn't always been this difficult to confirm nominees. Indeed, there was a time when confirmations were fairly quick. In a 2004 paper, Marymount University political scientist Margaret Tseng found that the average time between nomination and confirmation has grown steadily since the 1960s. When President Kennedy presented a nominee, he could expect confirmation within a few months at most. By contrast, President Clinton waited upward of nine months before many of his nominees entered service.
While some of this is political -- high polarization has made the confirmation process a battleground for political advantage -- it's also true that the 100-member Senate isn't particularly equipped to deal with the sheer size of the executive branch. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Senate could expect to confirm a few dozen nominees. Now the Senate must confirm thousands of nominees, the majority of whom don't benefit from the full attention of the Senate. Republican obstructionism has compounded the problem, but even if GOP senators were more deferential to the president's choices, you would still have to contend with too little time and too many nominees.
Given that we can only expect the confirmation process to become increasingly dysfunctional, I think it's worth revisiting the Brookings Institute's Presidential Appointee Initiative, which sought to provide a guidebook for streamlining the confirmation process. Among the recommendations were reducing the amount of paperwork and vetting necessary for any given nominee, restricting confirmation to "appointments of judges, ambassadors, and executive-level positions in the departments and agencies," and requiring the Senate to force confirmation votes on nominees no later than the 45th day after the nomination. Together, these recommendations would radically reduce the number of confirmable positions and streamline the process so that nominees aren't indefinitely stuck in confirmation limbo.
-- Jamelle Bouie