Ringside Seat: Yeah, Functioning Government!

Just this evening, the Senate voted to confirm Marilyn Tavenner as head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Of the many appointed positions in the federal government, this one doesn’t sound exciting. And it isn’t. But it is important. As head of CMS, Tavenner will be responsible for overseeing both programs and implementing large parts of the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s health care reform law.

It’s a critical position, and it’s the first time since 2006 that it has been filled. That’s not to say that there hasn’t been leadership—Tavenner herself has been acting director since December 2011—but the Senate has not confirmed a director since 2006, when Mark McClellan resigned during George W. Bush’s second term. And it’s not as if the administration hasn’t tried to get a nominee confirmed—President Obama nominated Donald Berwick, and when the Senate refused to act, installed him via a recess appointment which expired two years ago.

Why note the Senate’s confirmation of an obscure political appointee? Because it’s the first time in a long time that the chamber has voted to fill an important vacancy.

For the past four years, Republican lawmakers have used the filibuster and other procedural tricks to block confirmation for a whole variety of positions, from vacant judgeships to crucial positions at Cabinet-level agencies. Most recently, the GOP has threatened to challenge—and possibly derail—Obama’s nominee to lead the Department of Labor. Not because he isn’t qualified, but because, quite simply, he’s Obama’s nominee.

The record number of executive and judicial branch vacancies—complimented by a record number of filibusters—is a crisis. And while a handful of liberal lawmakers and activists have tried to do something about it, they’ve been stymied by Democratic leadership (to say nothing of an apathetic White House).

Tavenner’s confirmation is good in its own right—woo functioning government!—and another example of how conservative intransigence has created real problems for the conduct of government.


So They Say

"The larger problem with the scandal culture in D.C. is that, because each example of government wrongdoing quickly morphs into a partisan effort to attack the White House (the same was true when a Republican was President), the actual remedies for the problems uncovered become almost beside the point. A U.S. congressman will probably go farther in his party hierarchy by roughing up Obama than he will by helping to pass legislation to ensure that all diplomatic posts have adequate security. Likewise, the I.R.S. abuses suggest the need for both major tax reform and changes to campaign-finance laws, while a future dragnet of news media phone records could be prevented if a strong federal shield law were in place. Don’t hold your breath waiting for any of these policy changes."

Ryan Lizza, on "Peak Scandal"

Daily Meme: While You Were Scandal-Watching

  • So. Politicians and the people who cover them have had a one-track mind this week. If you aren't interested in talking about scandals, they aren't interested in talking to you. Here are some stories from around the world you may have missed.
  • The killings in Syria are becoming more and more grisly, and the victims younger and younger.
  • Climate change is getting scary. Even more so than usual.
  • People in New Orleans are still recovering from and investigating a Mothers' Day shooting that left 19 wounded.
  • Two people were killed, 11 wounded in Chicago shootings in the past 24 hours.
  • The Eurozone's recession is now the longest in the currency bloc's entire existence. 
  • A mine in Indonesia collapsed yesterday, and workers are still trapped inside. The death toll is currently four.
  • Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is calling for the immediate retraining of military recruiters and sexual assault prevention officers as more and more sexual-assault charges in the military come to light.
  • Moscow officials denied an application for a gay-rights parade, saying “there is no demand for these kinds of events in the city.”

What We're Writing

  • When elementary school principal Kathleen Knauth learned two weeks ago that testing standards for her students would be raised for a fifth time this year, she resigned. In an open letter written soon after, Knauth described how unnecessary testing is increasingly at odds with quality education. According to Sharon Lerner, that conflict is causing more and more teachers to exit the profession and deterring prospective students from entering it.
  • Although the Department of Justice's recent seizure of Associated Press phone records was met with anger by the news organization's president, the action did not violate the Supreme Court's understanding of the First Amendment, though it may have been ill considered. "Absent further information,"  Scott Lemieux writes, "it seems to me that the seizure of phone records was an unwise abuse of discretion on the part of the Department of Justice, even if it was legally authorized."

What We're Reading

  • Lawrence Wright explains how Texas' ever-loosening gun laws can create an ever-terrifying atmosphere.
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates explains what we mean when we say "racial construct."
  • NPR talks to stay-at-home dads and breadwinner moms, and how well this set-up works for many families.
  • According to BloombergD.C. is the worst place to be if you're unemployed.
  • The Guardian has a feature on America's climate refugees, a sobering portrait especially considering the news that carbon levels are reaching record highs.
  • Isaac Chotiner digs into the legacy of Mitch McConnell.

Poll of the Day

Europeans are as down on the E.U. as they've ever been, according to a new poll from Pew, with the region's economic difficulties dragging approval ratings down to 45 percent. Yet for all the pain austerity has brought, a majority in five of the eight countries surveyed still say government cuts are the best way to restore prosperity.

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