Saving Us From People We’ve Never Heard Of
March 13, 2009, 12:09 pm
Filed under: Ian | Tags: ,

Matt Ygelsias and Kevin Drum take a shot at confirmation hearings.  As Drum argues:

[H]ow about doing away with Senate confirmation entirely? It wastes tons of committee time, it promotes endless grandstanding by bloviating pols, it discourages all but the hardiest from working for the government, and — most important of all — it doesn’t actually seem to produce a better class of appointees, does it? Is the country really better off with a system that confirms Alberto Gonzales but deep sixes Tom Daschle? Has the White House staff, on average, been any less competent or less honest in recent years than the Senate-confirmed cabinet staff? Does the Senate, as Ackerman would like, really make it difficult for presidents to appoint underqualified officials?

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that Tom Daschle was an absolutely spendid choice for HHS Secretary, I’m not sure that the advantage of confirmation hearings is to ensure that the Senate confirms all the President’s Daschles while screening out cronies and rank incompetents like Gonzales.  Rather, it seems to me that confirmation hearings serve the necessary role of discouraging extremist presidents from nominating truly extremist officials.

I don’t understand Matt or Kevin to include judicial nominees in their arguments against confirmation hearings, but the process is the same so I’ll use an example from that context.  After the Rehnquist and O’Connor vacancies, right-wing interest groups rallied behind Judge Janice Rogers Brown, a nutty judge on the D.C. Circuit who thinks that the New Deal is unconstitutional and who once compared liberalism to slavery.  I have no doubt that Bush would have loved to place Judge Brown, who not only shares his deregulatory values but who is also—despite her truly insane views—an African-American woman with an impressive personal story, on the Supreme Court.  Bush backed down, however, largely because his own aides realized that she was unconfirmable even with 55 Republican senators.

Most people have never heard of Janice Rogers Brown, and while I wish the confirmation process had also discouraged Bush from placing her on the Court of Appeals (Brown was initially filibustered, but was later confirmed as part of the deal to prevent the so-called “nuclear option”), the fact that she is not presently one of the nine most powerful lawyers in the country is alone sufficient reason to keep the confirmation process intact.

As I have previously indicated, I am willing to tolerate a fair amount of resistance to change in our government, if the result also yields a government that is significantly more resistant to extremism.  Quite frankly, the Bush years spooked me, and the same ultra-conservatives who want nothing more than to eliminate taxes on the wealthy, repeal social security and other safety-net programs, place my sex life in the hands of government regulators and authorize one man to single-handedly wield the full power of the United States military without any check or balance are still with us today, waiting for President Obama to stumble so that they can again rise to power.

As the Federalist Papers explained a long time ago “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”  This means that, on occasion, senators with no desire other than to grandstand for their own political advantage will block or delay an outstanding nominee, but it also means that similarly motivated senators will see personal advantage in blocking an extremist president’s extremism in order to embarass that president and advance their own career.  Given the events of the last eight years, I’m willing to accept the former as the price of the later.


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