Politics & Policy

Democratic Obstructionism on Cabinet Nominees

Timothy Geithner at his confirmation hearings for treasury secretary in 2009. (Reuters photo: Brian Snyder)
The GOP didn’t do this to Obama.

As hearings commence this week for President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet picks, Democratic senators continue to express doubts over several of the choices and insist that, if necessary, they will attempt to delay the confirmation process as much as possible. This line comes, of course, from the party that mere weeks before the general election was already crying foul over the impending “obstructionism” that a Republican Congress might exercise against President Hillary Clinton.

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Just this week, the Democrats’ refrain has become one of ethical responsibility, as many insist that no hearings can be held until all of the cabinet nominees clear a preliminary certification process conducted by the U.S. Office of Government Ethics (OGE). But this argument has shown up only in the past few days. In the months since Trump’s victory, though the substance of the Democratic argument has shifted slightly, the end goal has remained the same: stopping Trump’s nominees from being confirmed, by whatever means possible.

For Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, this has meant everything from calling on Trump to rescind his nomination of Jeff Sessions for attorney general to insisting this week that an ethics review is necessary to ensure that cabinet officials will “put our country’s interests before their own.” For his part, Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) has accused the GOP of attempting to “jam through” Trump’s nominees. Many Democrats, politicians and pundits alike, have heaped abuse on nominees such as Betsy DeVos and Rex Tillerson, attacking the former for her supposed anti-public-school record, and lambasting both nominees for their supposedly excessive wealth.

According to The Hill, even the director of the OGE has hopped into the fray, accusing the GOP of rushing Trump’s nominees through the confirmation process. More from The Hill: “In a letter to Senate Democrats, [OGE director] Walter Shaub Jr. said the busy hearing schedule has overwhelmed his office. He said the OGE has not yet completed ethics screening reviews for several nominees. This schedule has created undue pressure on OGE’s staff and agency ethics officials to rush through these important reviews.”

These and other harsh critics seem to have completely forgotten what transpired in January 2009. Republicans were in a position similar to that of this year’s Democrats, holding a minority of Senate seats, and yet most GOP senators quickly acceded to President Obama’s will on his cabinet appointments.

By the time of his inauguration, Obama had nominated cabinet heads for twelve of the 15 executive-branch departments. Of those nominations, the Senate unanimously confirmed five and confirmed another five in broadly bipartisan votes in the span of a mere six days at the end of January. The GOP senators never engaged in anything remotely like “obstruction,” and the OGE head didn’t appear to have any problem with the quick pace. Even Timothy Geithner and Eric Holder — Obama’s nominees for the Treasury and Justice Departments, respectively — were confirmed by February 2, despite the concerns of some GOP senators, related in the case of Geithner to possible tax evasion.

Republican senators considered stalling the confirmation process for only one Obama nominee, Labor pick Hilda Solis

In fact, Republican senators considered stalling the confirmation process for only one Obama nominee, Labor pick Hilda Solis, over her refusal to answer questions during her hearing about her support of the Employee Free Choice Act and her desire to reverse the Bush administration’s H-2A guest-worker policies. Perhaps owing to this recalcitrance, an anonymous Republican put a secret hold on her nomination, and in the intervening period, Solis expounded on her policy views in a series of written exchanges with GOP senators. She was confirmed by the end of February in an 80–17 vote.

This is hardly the history of obstruction that Democrats would have us believe as they eye the possibility of attempting to delay the confirmations of at least a handful of Trump’s nominees. Furthermore, Democratic senators don’t have much power to delay these confirmations even if they wanted to, mostly as the result of their own political shortsightedness. In the fall of 2013, the Democratic Senate chose to curtail the filibuster for cabinet nominations, meaning that the minority party effectively can no longer delay the confirmation process of nominees to cabinet-level positions. Though GOP senators balked at the time, it seems unlikely that they’d choose to reverse such a policy, especially given that it now favors President Trump and the GOP agenda.

#related#Questions remain whether some GOP senators might choose to band with Democrats to delay the confirmation of one nominee in particular: Trump’s would-be secretary of state Rex Tillerson. Among those GOP members are John McCain (Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), and Marco Rubio (Fla.), all of whom have noted Tillerson’s relationship with Putin as a matter of concern.

As Democrats continue to introduce fresh complaints over every nominee Trump puts up — and to gripe about the supposedly quick pace of this year’s confirmation process (it’s not) — it is worth keeping in mind just how partisan these objections are, and just how quickly Democrats have managed to forget the GOP’s mild acquiescence to Obama’s cabinet picks.

— Alexandra DeSanctis is a National Review Institute William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism.

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