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End state Senate confirmation authority

In a State Capitol environment rife with puerile debates, the most inane are those associated with confirmation of gubernatorial nominations to cabinet posts.

The State Senate pours too much blood, sweat, tears and time into confirmations. DFLers especially have used confirmations as a partisan bludgeon, rejecting Chris Georgacus in 1997, Steve Minn in 2000 (twice), Cheri Pierson Yecke in 2000, and Carol Molnau in 2008.   Republicans haven’t blocked as many because they have held the Governor’s office for so long, but they did return the favor in 2012 by rejecting DFLer Ellen Anderson.

These tit-for-tat games are a waste of time and largely inconsequential. Usually, the nominees are just toyed with before being approved, but the toying itself expends too much legislative time and goodwill. Even in the relatively rare instance when a nominee is rejected — usually due to political score-settling rather than the nominee being unqualified or corrupt — the Governor simply puts forward a new nominee who has the same basic policy positions as the rejected nominee. The scene resembles a dog chasing its tail.

These confirmation debates represent the worst kind of scab picking in an institution that needs to heal key relationships in order to make more consequential policymaking possible.  Picked scabs leave lasting pain and scars that impact the long-term ability of our state government to reach constructive compromises.

In an era when the executive branch and legislative branch vigorously compete against each other like the Minnesota Vikings and the Green Bay Packers, the legislative confirmation authority is the functional equivalent of  the Packers possessing veto authority over which players the Vikings may have on their team. A Governor from any party should be able to choose his own team, and immediately put them on the field without waiting for the approval from the other team.

So I have a simple reform proposal: Stop it. Stop requiring legislative approval of the Governor’s cabinet members. Just stop it.

I know the confirmation requirement is traditional and legally mandated, but laws and traditions can be changed. Minnesota’s future success is not dependent on the continuation of the confirmation process, but it is dependent on legislators not clawing each others eyes out over issues that simply don’t matter that much.

I did take a civics class a long time ago, so I realize there is a downside of this. An imprudent Governor could choose a nominee who is grossly incompetent, inexperienced, and/or unethical guy or gal. That can happen.

But when it does happen, legislators have the ability to expose the Governor’s flawed nominee in the news media and campaigns, and let voters decide whether the nomination bothers them enough to take it out on the Governor and his party at the ballot box. Yes, legislative confirmations are a check on gubernatorial power.  But two checks on gubernatorial nominations already exist — freedom of speech and elections.  The third check — Senate confirmation votes — just isn’t needed.

Whatever small benefits confirmations may have are dwarfed by the substantial wear and tear they put on policymaker relationships. Ending gubernatorial nomination confirmations certainly won’t stop bloodshed at the Capitol. But it will stop one of the more trifling reasons for bloodshed.

This post was written by Joe Loveland and originally published on Wry Wing Politics.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/15/2013 - 10:37 am.

    I’m not sure that

    blocking the nomination of an incompetent individual with an obvious partisan agenda is a ‘small benefit’.

  2. Submitted by Joe Loveland on 07/15/2013 - 12:18 pm.

    I understand the concern

    …but the problem tends to be that “competence” and “partisanship” is very much in the eye of the partisan beholder.

    If legislative confirmation is truly a top priority, should we give the Governor approval power over legislative staff?

  3. Submitted by Michael P. Johnson on 07/16/2013 - 09:09 am.

    Confirmation Process

    I generally agree that not confirming an individual the Governor has appointed is a political move more often than not. However, it seems like that is the point of the confirmation process, irregardless of whether we like it or not.

    In the recent case of Ellen Anderson, GOP’ers didn’t like her energy policy and therefore the Senate chose not to confirm her. However, that also had alot to do with Dayton’s other policies at the time (i.e. trying to raise taxes, bonding, and the state shutdown). If Dayton truly wanted Anderson confirmed, he could have used her nomination as a bargaining chip. Moreover, I think like most things in the legislative process, the confirmation process is simply another bargaining chip.

    Although I don’t see a huge issue with eliminating it, it does beg the question about how a Commissioner is removed beyond voluntary resignation. It would be a rare case where this would be necessary but I could see the situation arising. Lastly, it seems like a stretch that making this one change would improve relations between the respective branches of government. I believe that has more to do with the type of people we have in office, not the procedures which the different bodies of government are or are not allowed to use.

  4. Submitted by Joe Loveland on 07/16/2013 - 12:06 pm.

    I agree, but…

    Re: “It seems like a stretch that making this one change would improve relations between the branches of government.”

    Mr. Johnson, I agree. Far from a panacea. But my attitude is, “if it would make things a little better, and doesn’t have a big cost, hey why not?” Until the panacea reveals itself to me, I’m open to doing some smaller reforms.

    It’s sort of like when I say to my kids at the dinner table “we’re not going to critique each others’ fashion choices at the dinner table.” The rule doesn’t stop all bickering, just the most annoying type of bickering. It doesn’t lead us to civil Socratic discussions of the meaning of life, but it leads us away from stupid discussions that just make us pissed at each other. To me, that’s progress. Not utopia, but progress.

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