Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) has done a very irresponsible thing that nonetheless offers Democrats a classic “teachable moment” about the true fidelity of Republicans to fiscal discipline. Shelby put a hold on all presidential appointments (70 are pending at present ) until he gets his way on a couple of big projects–one involving a Shelby appropriations “earmark”–benefiting Alabama.
Some may recall that during the 2008 presidential campaign, Republicans talked as though earmarks were the primary cause of the federal government’s budget problems. And here’s one of their own gumming up the entire executive branch over one of them, while also trying to control the exact language of a federal contract on another project to steer money to his own state.
Shelby’s action could also help draw attention to the disgraceful pattern of Republican obstruction of presidential appointments, which has left dozens of federal agencies without key personnel.
“Holds” by senators are an atavistic tradition in the first place. Democrats should not let Shelby get away with the unprecedented step of a “blanket” hold, in order to shake down the administration for earmarked money, even as his party demagogues endlessly about runaway spending. Congressional Republicans should finally begin to pay a political price for their hypocrisy and cynicism on fiscal issues.
UPDATE: Ezra Klein provides a clear explanation of what a senatorial “hold” involves, and also explains why Shelby’s gambit should backfire, comparing it to Ben Nelson’s infamous health care “deal”:
The reason holds work is that they’re small enough, and rare enough, that they never rise to the level of something the majority can’t live with. Shelby, in putting a hold on all pending nominations, just made holds very big indeed. And he did it for the most pathetic and parochial of reasons: pork for his state. If the Democrats have any sense at all, Shelby’s hold is about to become as famous as Nelson’s deal.