This time he means it. Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
This time he means it. Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Tailgunner Ted Cruz, the Republican Senator from Texas, has said he will put a hold on all State Department nominees because . . . oh, something to do with Israel, but I’ll leave you all to argue about that part elsewhere. Here, we’re all about Senate procedure, so the question is: What kind of threat is it, at this point in the partisan war, to put a “hold” on anyone? The answer: Thanks to Senate Republicans adopting the very tactics that Cruz embraces, not very much.

The reason a Senate majority leader must respect a hold in the first place is that it's essentially a threat to filibuster. It is not, however, a threat to defeat something by filibuster; a single senator can never defeat something that the other 99 support. That was as true when the threshold to overcome a nomination filibuster was 60 votes as it is now, when it requires only a simple majority of votes. Without majority support, a hold is merely a senator's threat to use every stalling tactic available. Non-controversial nominations take essentially zero time to confirm on the Senate floor. They require no debate and are subject to a voice vote or, in some cases, unanimous consent for several nominations to be confirmed at once.

Even though a lone filibuster can delay things for only about a week, the threat of one is still fairly significant from the majority leader’s perspective. He is responsible for scheduling, and doesn't want monkey wrenches in the works. So why are holds tolerated? Because they empower each individual senator, and thus the Senate as whole. They’re a means of exerting influence over executive branch departments and agencies. Putting aside the question of whether Cruz’s holds are responsible oversight or demagogic nonsense, it empowers the Senate if individual senators are able to use routine nominations to extract information and policy commitments from the executive branch.

Trouble is, the Senate also wants to get its work done as quickly and efficiently as possible. Interfering with that, or threatening to, is how a hold provides leverage. But in the post-nuclear Senate, at least for now, a hold isn't what it used to be. Holds on judges, for example, are currently meaningless. Senate Republicans, as a group, are already delaying each judicial nomination as much as possible -- in effect exercising a party-wide hold against all judges. There’s nothing an individual Senator can do to extend the agony.

Executive branch nominations are more complicated. Quite a few are being approved by voice vote, without cloture votes. That doesn't, however, imply smooth sailing. Republicans often impose extended delays before allowing nominations to go forward. Roll Call’s Niels Lesniewski and Humberto Sanchez have done good reporting on the current logjam, but the nature and duration of various delays remains unclear. In any case, it seems unlikely that any new executive branch holds by Cruz would make much difference.

The upshot, as I’ve said before, is that the Republicans' collective decision to “punish” majority leader Harry Reid by delaying all nominations also has the effect of depriving individual Republicans of any leverage over individual nominations. Consequently, what Reid must do to overcome Cruz’s holds is pretty much what he does regardless. It's possible that Reid might prioritize other nominations over those opposed by Cruz. But only if Republicans provide a clearer path to some alternative set of nominees. Otherwise, it's all one undifferentiated delay, with very little leverage held by any individual Republican. Cruz and his radical allies are the main reason for that.

To contact the writer of this article: Jonathan Bernstein at Jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net.