The Games Bush Plays With Good Nominees Are Counterproductive

Posted July 13, 2004 at 1:34pm

Jonathan Adelstein has been a member of the Federal Communications Commission since December 2002. By all accounts, he has been an outstanding commissioner — thoughtful, hard-working, straightforward, knowledgeable, insightful, capable of helping us navigate through the difficult issues of the communications age.

Adelstein did not get on the commission easily. A Democrat from South Dakota who had been nominated by fellow South Dakota Democrat Tom Daschle, Adelstein was held up for months by Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) in retaliation for the treatment of Mississippi judge Charles Pickering. When he finally got on the commission, it was only to fill a vacancy for a term that expired in June of last year.

A year ago February, Daschle submitted Adelstein’s name to the president for a full term on the FCC, set to expire on June 30, 2008. But 17 months have passed. No nomination has emerged from the White House.

It is not as if Adelstein is controversial or outside of the mainstream. He is not a rigid ideologue; he is not someone who has vowed to destroy the agency he serves, or to disregard the law or Congressional intent to serve a higher ideological or partisan purpose. No ethical conflicts have surfaced. He comes from a distinguished South Dakota family that includes prominent Republicans, and his supporters include South Dakota’s Republican governor, Mike Rounds, and Republican Senate candidate John Thune, as well as Republican Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Conrad Burns (Mont.), among others. But if the nomination does not get to the Senate soon, there will be no time to consider it before adjournment.

So what is going on here? This is a broader tale of the nomination and confirmation process beyond just the judicial nominations that have become so contentious between Republicans and Democrats in Congress and in the White House. Executive nominations are less widely noticed, but are arguably even more dysfunctional than judicial nominations. The number of judges under fire or in dispute is about seven; the number of executive nominees is in the dozens.

Adelstein is, of course, a Democrat. Independent commissions like the FCC have statutory requirements for partisan balance; so do many boards and advisory committees. The president has the authority to make all such nominations, but longstanding tradition has given the basic responsibility for nominating candidates for seats reserved for the party not in the White House to that party’s Senate leader. Thus, when Bill Clinton was president, Republican Leader Lott was the point man. The nominations did not simply reflect his personal preferences; he would listen to committee leaders, party officials, interest groups and others before making his preferences known.

Not every Lott nomination was accepted by Clinton, but rejections were rare. To be spurned by the White House, nominees had to personally attack the president or fail the FBI background check, or have expressed views that were fundamentally inimical to the existence or basic function of the agencies or commissions on which they were going to serve. The handful of examples of the latter involved nominees for the Legal Services Corporation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

When George W. Bush became president, he reached a handshake agreement early on with Democratic leader Daschle to follow the Clinton-Lott standards. He hasn’t. Adelstein may be the most egregious example of the White House sticking it to Daschle and the Democrats, but he is far from the only one.

More than 20 Democrats recommended by Daschle have been shelved or ignored — nominees for agencies, boards and commissions that range from the Commodities Futures Trading Commission to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission; from the U.S. Institute of Peace to the Inter-American Foundation; from the Corporation for National and Community Service to the Defense Nuclear Facilities Board; from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

No doubt some of the White House reaction is payback for Democrats’ treatment of Bush judicial appointments. But it is way out of proportion and wholly counterproductive.

For months, Bush refused to nominate Gregory Jaczko, an aide to Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.), to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, leading Reid to hold up a slew of Bush nominees. After Jaczko was nominated as part of a broader deal in February, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee bottled up his nomination, leading to a further set of blanket holds by Reid.

So what if this means a number of Bush nominees to executive positions are also twisting in the wind? The attitude of the administration is basically, “So what?” Either the individuals are serving in an acting capacity, or they can wait. What a way to encourage the best and brightest to consider public service! The president ought to remember that if there is a second Bush term, he will have to find a new group of recruits to fill many important political appointments. To do this, he will need some assurances that people can avoid going through hell to get into the jobs. This is no way to provide those assurances.

I don’t like at all the runaway practice of holds in the Senate — a practice that has allowed individual Senators to delay or deny slews of nominations for utterly ancillary reasons. The hold has become a mechanism for hostage-taking, and has been distorted and misused across the board, leaving worthy and good people twisting in the wind for no good reason, tarnishing their reputations, disrupting their lives and damaging public service recruitment. But that does not make the White House actions respectable.

The idea that people like Adelstein or Mark Gearan (the president of Hobart College and former head of the Peace Corps, nominated for a seat on the Corporation for National and Community Service) or Sharon Sayles Belton (former mayor of Minneapolis, proposed for the Postal Board of Governors) or Harvey Goldschmid (waiting for word on his reappointment to the Securities and Exchange Commission) would be given the back of the hand by the White House is simply ludicrous. They meet every reasonable criterion for appointment.

The White House just doesn’t seem to care what its rejection or inaction on these appointments does to relations between the White House and Congress, or what it does to a host of other nominees, or to the dynamic between the parties if there is a second Bush term. Nor is it thinking through the reverberations for its own next wave of nominees for important executive posts. It seems to reflect a combination of the overall White House contempt for Congress and its hostility to Daschle and Democrats more generally. It is foolish in the extreme.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.