Sen. Lindsey Graham said he would block Janet Yellen's nomination as Federal Reserve chairwoman to get more information released on the Benghazi attack. Sen. Rand Paul said he would hold up the nomination for a vote on his bill.
In an environment where precious little legislation gets passed, lawmakers looking for leverage on issues have few places to turn. One of them is holding up nominations — and Yellen's is a big one.
"It's the only leverage we have," Graham said.
And so, in a time-honored Capitol Hill tradition, Yellen is being made a pawn in other fights.
For Graham, R-S.C., that means gathering more information about the attack on the U.S. consulate last year. "I'm going to block future nominations coming from the administration, not because I want to shut anything down — because I want to open something up," he said at a news conference.
For Paul, R-Ky., that means a vote on his bill to broaden the ability of the Government Accountability Office to audit the Fed. Paul has been critical of the Fed's policies but suggested he is open to considering Yellen's nomination.
"I look forward to an in-depth discussion in debating her nomination, but my ultimate decision will rest on her potential effectiveness in reforming that historically irresponsible institution," he wrote in a Time editorial after the White House announced Yellen's nomination in October.
Indeed, as the number of laws passed by Congress in each session has declined over decades, the use of holds has risen, says G. Calvin Mackenzie, a professor of government at Colby College. It's impossible to know just how many are used today; they aren't quantified anywhere. In 2011, the Senate voted to end "secret holds," which allowed lawmakers to anonymously block nominees.
But according to Sarah Binder, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, compliance with the new rule is imperfect. "As the parties move farther and farther apart, it probably increases the incentive to use more obstructive procedures and exploit them," said Binder.
Nominees are blocked for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes they overcome them, as Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke did in 2010 when Sens. Bernie Sanders, Jim DeMint, Jim Bunning, and David Vitter vowed to block his nomination. Sometimes they find a way around, as when President Obama used a recess appointment to install Richard Cordray as the first head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Sometimes they don't. In 2011, Nobel laureate Peter Diamond penned a scathing New York Times op-ed, "When a Nobel Prize Isn't Enough," to announce his withdrawal from consideration to serve on the Fed's Board of Governors after his confirmation was blocked three times.
Yellen is less likely to be challenged on the suitability of qualifications for the job than Diamond, who, despite his Nobel Prize, had never served at the central bank. Yellen has been the Fed's vice chairwoman since 2010 and previously headed one of its regional branches.
But the Fed's actions during and after the financial crisis are sure to color her confirmation hearings, and Paul is among the Republicans who have raised questions about the Fed's stimulus actions.
The good news for Yellen? As the Fed's current vice chairwoman, she'll become the acting chairwoman on Feb. 1 when Bernanke's term expires — even if she hasn't been confirmed by Congress.