The Senate's Loretta Lynch debacle

How can anyone rejoice over the Lynch vote when the process failed so badly?

There's an old joke about the man who kept hitting himself in the head with a hammer. Asked why he could possibly want to deliberately inflict such terrible pain, he responded, "Because it feels so good when I stop."

Whether the man in question was a member of the U.S. Senate is not clear, but surely he might have been. At least that would help explain the truly unnecessary impasse over the nomination of Loretta Lynch to succeed Eric Holder as U.S. Attorney General. That the Senate is now poised to finally consent to Ms. Lynch after such a long delay is not an achievement to be celebrated so much as a case of self-inflicted pain finally coming to a merciful conclusion.

Lest anyone forget — and after a record five months of inaction, many probably have — the 55-year-old Harvard-educated Ms. Lynch is not only eminently qualified for the post as a career federal prosecutor, but as an African-American woman she represents a historic first for the nation. The chief GOP criticism of her has been that she has described President Barack Obama's executive actions on immigration as lawful, a stance that puts her in the same company as the agency's Office of Legal Counsel, Mr. Holder and many top legal scholars from across the country.

No doubt a majority of Senate Republicans won't vote for Ms. Lynch — the party's anti-Obama and anti-immigration politics being too firmly cemented to allow it — but that was never really the question. Instead, she was just another Congressional hostage, released for an up-or-down vote only because Democrats struck a deal on a human trafficking bill that includes some abortion-related restrictions on the subsidized medical care offered to victims.

Legislating can be a messy process, but in the Senate, it's a slow-motion mess. That's why any pronouncement that the flushing away of this long-standing legislative blockage is some kind of triumph of governance is so laughable.

And yet it's happening. Add this development to the "doc fix" — the Medicare rate-setting bill signed into law this week — and the modest energy efficiency legislation recently approved by both chambers (it mostly offers certain economic incentives to build with high-efficiency heating and cooling systems), and some on both sides of the aisle were absolutely patting themselves on the back.

"I've actually been somewhat surprised and more optimistic than I have been in a long time about how the Senate is beginning to work again," said Sen. John Cornyn, the Texas Republican who serves as majority whip.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has expressed similar views, recently telling reporters that these were "encouraging signs that lots of people are noticing." But if people are noticing anything, it's only that a wholly dysfunctional place appears to have eased into mostly dysfunctional. That's not something to be celebrated so much as to be slightly less depressed about.

Even Sen. Richard Durbin, the Democrat's number two in the chamber, went a little over the top when he suggested that the negotiated deal over Ms. Lynch was proof that the Democrats would not be the obstructionists that the Republicans were when their majority/minority roles were reversed prior to the 2014 midterm elections. His notion of a "constructive minority" sounds more aspirational than proven at this point, however.

What the senators ought to be talking about is how foolish their handling of the nominee to be the nation's top law enforcement official has made them look and the unfortunate message it has sent to the public at a time of heightened concerns about race and police brutality. It's also set a troubling precedent: If a five-month delay for such a critical post is within the realm of possibility, what will the next president, Republican or Democratic, face when it's his or her turn to name a cabinet? How many more weeks or months can such a vote be delayed?

We'll see how this new, allegedly productive Senate deals with far more challenging topics like the "fast track" authority on trade, the six-year transportation authorization or the cyber-security bill soon enough. Our expectation is that Congress will continue to be the underachieving, publicly-despised institution that it has proven itself to be over and over again in recent years. We dare them to put down the hammer.

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