Prior to 2006, the ATF Director could be appointed directly by the president without going through the Senate confirmation process. That changed after the National Rifle Association successfully lobbied to insert a provision into a law reauthorizing the PATRIOT Act requiring Senate approval of any such Director.
The result of Senate scrutiny has not been better qualified or more unassailable ATF Directors. It has instead meant that no ATF Director has ever been confirmed. After the 2006 law took effect, President Bush nominated U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan to head the agency, but the NRA accused Sullivan of “overly restrictive legal interpretations” and “overly zealous enforcement activities.” Sens. David Vitter (R-LA), Larry Craig (R-ID) and Mike Crapo (R-ID) threatened to filibuster Sullivan, and he was never confirmed.
President Obama waited until 2010 to nominate an ATF Director, in large part because “had a tough time even finding a candidate interested in the ATF job because of likely gun-lobby resistance.” His first nominee, ATF veteran Andrew Traver, also ran into a wall of obstruction built by the NRA. One of the NRA’s leading attacks against Traver was that he supported a ban on .50 caliber rifles. To put that in perspective, the bullet on the right in this picture is a .50 caliber round. The much smaller bullet on the left is a .223 round similar to the ones fired by the military’s standard-issue M-16 assault rifles:
So, from the moment the ATF job because a Senate confirmed position, it also appeared unfillable due to the combination of the Senate’s broken rules and the NRA’s propensity to oppose any nominees. Interestingly, the NRA actually remained officially neutral on the Jones vote, although it is possible that they did so largely because they did not want to weigh in on a fight they expected to lose. Wednesday’s vote means that the truce that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) negotiated to halt widespread filibusters of President Obama’s nominees is still holding — albeit barely. If the truce breaks, Reid remains free to invoke the so-called nuclear option to ensure that obstructionism does not prevail.