Consensus is overrated.
Consider two seemingly unrelated events this summer: On July 10, a day before its summit began in Lithuania, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) appeared powerless to admit Sweden into its alliance because one of its 31 members, Turkey, blocked it. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had a condition: admit his country into the EU or leave Sweden out in the cold.
The same day, the U.S. Senate was powerless to replace the Marine Corps’ commander for the first time since 1859 because one of its 100 members blocked it. That Senator, Alabama Republican Tommy Tuberville, had a condition, too: end Pentagon support for employees forced to travel out of state for safe, legal abortions or else leave the military without stable leadership.
Within a day of his one-nation embargo and in an obvious quid pro quo for suddenly allowing Sweden’s entry, Turkey’s Erdoğan extracted F-16s and nearly 80 “modernization kits” for its existing warplanes from America.
During his 10-month one-man stand, which ended on Dec. 5, Tuberville didn’t just prevent the Marines from replacing their commander, he also blocked confirmation of more than 450 senior military promotions.
When lawmakers are in the minority, Tuberville told CNN in July, “the only power we have is to put a hold on something.”
“I’m a senator,” Tuberville added, “I can hold any confirmation I want.”
He’s right. In fact, Tuberville — a former college football coach — has learned the rules of the game too well. The Senate allows him to score from the sidelines of power.
Every two years, the Senate must confirm about 65,000 nominations made by the president for a variety of positions, per a Congressional Research Service report. Military appointments and promotions comprise the majority of those.
Of course, the Senate doesn’t have time to individually approve 65,000 nominations. Instead, they’re routinely approved en bloc, a process by which hundreds of nominations are considered simultaneously provided they’re approved by unanimous consent of the Senate’s 100 members.
These appointments are approved unanimously, usually — just not usually enough. In recent years, Tuberville’s colleagues have played the same cynical game, leveraging the Senate’s anachronistic demands for consensus to try thwarting the majority.
In March, Senator Rand Paul halted a bid to fast-track banning TikTok, which U.S. intelligence warns doubles as a snooping tool for China. In 2022, though he represents Utah, Senator Mike Lee blocked creation of a national historic site at a Japanese internment camp in Colorado. In 2021, Senator Josh Hawley threatened blocking “every single civilian nominee” for the state and defense departments.
Consensus sounds great on paper. Maybe it even works well for Quakers. But its appeal should end outside the prayer circle. At home and abroad, we’re seeing how the ideal of consensus actually plays out: the far-from-virtuous few continue exploiting institutions requiring unanimity to delay, disrupt and deny the will of the many.
Our national security and global order are at stake.
A rogue state — Russia — has used its seat on the consensus-run Security Council to block the UN from taking any meaningful collective action against its baseless war against Ukraine.
Exasperated, watching the world rendered powerless by one nation’s veto, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told the UN in 2022 what could equally apply to the U.S. and NATO in 2023: Reform your rules, pleaded Zelensky, adding that “The next option would be to dissolve yourself altogether.”
Max Taves is a lifelong Californian and a journalist who has written for the Wall Street Journal, CBSi-CNET and LA Weekly.