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America’s Unconfirmed Hostages

DENVER – The United States Constitution, which turned 225 years old last summer, is a remarkable document: the provisions of a text written in the eighteenth century continue to guide twenty-first-century governance. We will be reminded of the implications of that in the coming weeks, as President Barack Obama fills senior positions in his second-term administration. In many cases, the process will not be pretty.

Article II of the Constitution stipulates presidential powers that require the “advice and consent of the Senate,” including the nomination of senior officials. Probably nobody, 225 years ago, had any idea that the number of officials deemed to require Senate confirmation would eventually exceed 1,400, or that Senate confirmation would involve a vetting process that often takes years to complete.

Indeed, many people believe that the Senate confirmation process is broken. They have only to point to the failed attempt to nominate Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, to be Hillary Clinton’s successor as Secretary of State, or to the similarly gut-wrenching nomination of former Senator Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense.

Because of the sheer volume of nominations, most have traditionally sailed through the Senate with so-called unanimous consent, a process by which nominations are placed on the day’s calendar and the calendar is approved in a single voice vote. But that expedited process is becoming rarer nowadays.