Foreign Relations chairman denounced for dispensing with Senate courtesies

With little notice, Risch schedules vote on nominee who is under investigation

Chairman Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, left, and ranking member Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., talk before the start of a Senate Foreign Relations hearing in 2019.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Chairman Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, left, and ranking member Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., talk before the start of a Senate Foreign Relations hearing in 2019. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted May 20, 2020 at 2:23pm

Senate Foreign Relations Democrats are upset with the Republican chairman of their committee for opting to move ahead with a confirmation vote Thursday for a nominee under investigation for allegedly enriching himself through the nonprofit he runs.

Democrats are further upset with Chairman Jim Risch, R-Idaho, for declining to allow a livestream of the hearing, in contravention of the recommendations of the Senate Rules panel that extra efforts be taken to ensure public transparency of committee activities while the Capitol is closed to the public and the presence of reporters is strictly limited.

Led by ranking member Bob Menendez of New Jersey, all committee Democrats signed on to two letters sent to Risch on Wednesday that protested his decision to schedule votes on nonurgent committee nominees and bills, while declining to allow votes on any of the coronavirus-related measures introduced by members.

“The American public has the right to see and hear their senators as we debate and vote on nominees and critical legislation. Live stream video is consistent with the Senate ‘sunshine’ rules and with normal committee practice,” one of the letters to Risch read.

“We also remind the chairman that the Senate Rules Committee guidance from Chairman [Roy] Blunt and Ranking Member [Amy] Klobuchar provided on April 30 emphasizes the importance of technology that allows the American people to view congressional proceedings,” the letter continued.

The Rules Committee guidance states that a “concurrent broadcast, which could include live streaming via the internet, would meet the requirements for a public meeting.”

Democrats accused Risch of wanting to push through the nomination of Michael Pack, a conservative filmmaker with an extensive background in American public broadcasting, to serve a three-year term as head of the U.S. Agency for Global Media, formerly known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors, without the public scrutiny that a livestream would allow.

The agency oversees U.S. taxpayer-funded news organizations that serve international audiences, including Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Under investigation by D.C. attorney general

Last week, the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia informed the Foreign Relations Committee it was actively investigating whether Pack used a nonprofit he runs, the Public Media Lab, to illegally enrich himself. As part of the committee’s review of Pack’s nomination, staffers learned from public records that several million dollars in grants received by Public Media Lab were transferred to the for-profit film company Pack owns. The D.C. attorney general also has requested access to the committee’s file on Pack.

“Your plan to jam Mr. Pack through the committee means that members will be voting on Mr. Pack without any answers on whether he has violated the law; whether other jurisdictions, in addition to the [D.C.] OAG, are investigating Mr. Pack; and whether you have any intent to cooperate with the OAG request for the committee to provide documents related to Mr. Pack to assist with the OAG investigation,” the Democrats said to Risch in a second letter.

On the same day, May 14, that the OAG disclosed its investigation, Pack was supposed to have received a committee confirmation vote. But Risch, at the last minute, postponed the meeting after bipartisan objections were made to his unilateral setting of the day’s agenda, in contravention to longstanding committee practice, which normally includes input from minority party members.

In rescheduling the Pack vote for Thursday, Risch provided only two days’ notice, as opposed to the seven days’ notice that committee rules require for non-emergency business.

“Mr. Pack’s nomination has no connection to COVID-19 and is not urgent from a national security or foreign policy perspective,” Democrats said in their letter. “As a result, scheduling this vote for May 21 is a blatant violation of a basic rule intended to enhance transparency for the American people and safeguard their ability to monitor committee activities.”  

Risch’s office did not return a request for comment.

The Pack nomination has been waiting for a committee vote since June 2018, but Democrats argue they had good reason to hold up his confirmation because of outstanding vetting issues.

“Mr. Pack has refused to provide the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with documents it requested that get to the heart of the matter that the OAG is now investigating, or to correct false statements he made to the IRS,” Menendez said in a statement. “His steadfast refusal to honor the commitment to transparency that he gave the committee at his nomination hearing forces us to ask whether Mr. Pack was actively hiding wrongdoing.”

The Pack nomination would likely have remained on the committee back burner had President Donald Trump not publicly made it a priority for Risch.

“He’s been stuck in committee for two years, preventing us from managing the Voice of America. Very important,” Trump said of Pack at the White House in mid-April.

Another break with tradition

Risch’s scheduling of a vote on the Pack nomination absent the consent of Menendez is the latest in a series of moves made by the Idaho Republican in his 17-month tenure at the helm of the committee that have altered the panel’s tradition of bipartisanship.

Under the comity norms that have governed the committee for decades, the chairman and the ranking member jointly agree on agenda items and will often work out ahead of time which amendments to include in any manager’s package that is adopted to a bill. This longstanding practice between committee leaders has allowed markups to run more smoothly than they otherwise would if senators were to insist on their right to hold roll call votes on every amendment, regardless of chances of adoption.

Menendez has warned that if Risch does away with the traditional courtesies, then Democrats could make business meetings drawn-out, tedious affairs by offering endless amendments to bills. He has also suggested that Democrats will not observe comity on the committee if they regain the Senate after the next election.

“I don’t believe in unilateral disarmament,” Menendez told reporters Tuesday. “If this is the way you’re going to operate things in your own majority, then don’t expect that somehow comity is going to return.”