I am a firm believer in the advise and consent role of the Senate on important executive confirmations. A careful look at the qualifications, temperament, moral character and background of key officials is a good thing. It makes a president more careful when he considers nominations, it provides for an airing of policy positions and differences, and it enables senators to give messages to an administration about their expectations for implementation of policies and legislation they have enacted or oversee.
But an advise and consent power has to be exercised with responsibility. That means that senators ultimately give wide leeway to presidents to choose the people they want and trust in positions of authority. Reasonable standards should be employed on qualifications, temperament, moral character and background, but not manipulative attempts to exaggerate alleged negative qualities, to smear people who have put themselves out there for public service, not via reprehensible leaks of material from FBI background checks or anonymous sources.
It means that nominations should, in almost every instance, come to the Senate for up-or-down votes — not be killed stealthily in committee by sitting on them without confirmation hearings or without voting them out to the floor, not held anonymously or otherwise for months or longer because of the pique or hostage- taking propensity of individual lawmakers, not filibustered.
It means that when a Senate minority declares that it will not allow anyone, no matter their qualifications, to fill posts because the minority doesn’t like the law that authorizes or empowers the position — i.e., the tactic Thomas Mann defined as “the new Nullification,” applied to the heads of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services — it is way out of bounds.
We have a newly re-elected president, who won with a clear majority of national popular votes cast. He has selected his nominees for two of the four top Cabinet posts in his administration. And before any hearings, the long knives are already coming out against them.
I know former Sen. Chuck Hagel and Jacob J. Lew well. I know that they are both men of exceptional character, intellect, personal integrity and deep experience.
There are legitimate questions to raise about them. There should be a debate in the hearings about Hagel’s past statements and positions on foreign policy, and it is perfectly appropriate to have a debate about President Barack Obama’s foreign policy vision as reflected in the nomination.
It is legitimate to raise questions about Obama’s economic policy in hearings on Lew, and about what kinds of background and experiences are best suited for Treasury.
But the idea that Hagel is an anti-Semite or anti-Israel is absurd, and the idea that Lew is too stubborn and mean in negotiations with congressional staffers is puerile.
As for their positions on defense, foreign policy, budgets or spending programs, the key point is that they will support the president’s positions. These are his choices, and they deserve due deference, not cheap shots.
To watch Texas Republican Ted Cruz, before serving a day in the Senate, before any hearings or meeting with Hagel face-to-face, come out against him, tells us a lot about Ted Cruz. To read Mississippi GOP Sen. Roger Wicker’s statement, accusing the president of fomenting bitter partisan gridlock by choosing as his nominee for Defense a former two-term Republican senator, tells us that Wicker, a solid legislator, has lost his perspective on where bitter partisan gridlock is coming from.
I don’t begrudge any senator a negative vote against a nominee. That is the prerogative of a senator. But when top nominations made right after an election get not the benefit of the doubt but character attacks, it is not a good sign. The real test here is whether Republicans take this to the next level and filibuster any of these highly qualified and superior individuals who are the considered choices of the president. If that happens, it is a sign that elections, propriety and the intent of the advise and consent clause don’t matter when they come up against the tribalism that now dominates our politics.
Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.