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29th April 2009 Charles J. Brown
03:13 pm

Senate Confirmations and Republican Obstructionism

As noted in today’s NYT (h/t Yglesias), the Senate voted by a margin of 65 to 31 yesterday to confirm Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius as Secretary of Health and Human Services.

You read that right.  Thirty-one Senators (all Republicans) voted against her, largely as a result of campaigning by those opposed to abortion who were unhappy with her policies as governor.

I understand that Washington is a political town, and I’m certainly not shocked that many Republicans see nothing wrong with basing their vote on a single issue — after all Democrats do it too.  Just one thing, though:  we’re in the at the beginning what might be a serious medical crisis, and you’d think that Republicans just might want the country to have a Secretary of Health on the job.

Yglesias suggests that this does not portend well for the coming battle on health care.  That may be the case, but I’m not sure that the vote was a referendum on that as much as it was an exercise in opposition for opposition’s sake.

The Sebelius vote got me thinking about the conventional wisdom that the Senate will, for the most part, defer to the President’s wishes.  It is a principle embraced by both parties, but usually only when one of their own is in the White House.  Just to cite one example, some of the very Senators who used to scream about an “up or down vote” for John Bolton are now among those who are threatinging filibusters against or placing holds on Obama’s nominees.

So I thought I’d conduct a little exercise.  What were the Senate votes for and against the last two Presidents’ nominees for the Cabinet?  For the sake of brevity (and my own sanity), I decided to limit it to ten cabinet posts:  State, Treasury, Justice, Homeland Security, HHS, Labor, Energy, Agriculture, OMB, and Education.  That’s an entirely arbitrary selection — it includes some of the major departments as well as some outside the public eye, and excludes Defense since the Senate did not have to re-confirm Gates.

Here were the votes for Obama’s choices, with the party breakdown, where relevant, in parentheses:

  • State (Clinton): 94-2 (both Republicans)
  • Treasury (Geithner): 60-34 (30 Republicans, 4 Democrats)
  • Justice (Holder):  75-21 (21 Republicans)
  • Homeland Security (Napolitano):  100-0 (unanimous voice vote)
  • HHS (Sebelius):  65-31 (31 Republicans)
  • Labor (Solis):  80-17 (17 Republicans)
  • Energy (Chu):  100-0
  • Agriculture (Vilsack):  100-0
  • OMB (Orzag) 100-0
  • Education (Duncan) 100-0

Of these, only Geithner’s nomination was actually controversial, and in his case it was a matter of his individual actions (his failure to pay taxes) rather than his policy positions.

Now let’s look at George W. Bush’s initial nominees:

  • State (Powell): 100-0
  • Treasury (O’Neill): 100-0
  • Justice (Ashcroft): 58-42 (42 Democrats)
  • Homeland Security (Ridge):  100-0
  • HHS (Thompson): 100-0
  • Labor (Chao): 100-0
  • Energy (Abraham): 100-0
  • Agriculture (Veneman):  100-0
  • OMB (Daniels):  100-0
  • Education (Paige):  100-0

Notice a pattern here?  Democrats deferred to Bush in every case except Ashcroft.  Republicans, in contrast, demanded roll call votes in five of the nine.  Yes, the opposition to Hillary was token, but it doesn’t get away from the larger picture:  Democrats in opposition are far more willing to agree to the President’s choices than are Republicans. To put it another way, the conventional wisdom about deferring to the President is far more prevalent in the Senate Democratic Caucus than it is in its Republican counterpart.

So what are we to make of this?  To begin with, it reflects the relative cohesion of the dominant conservative wing of the Republican Party, whose instinct is to oppose, oppose, oppose. It also means that the Republicans aren’t going to stop pursuing this tactic anytime soon.  This is a war of attrition, and as the Senate considers sub-cabinet appointees, you can expect more and more holds and threats of filibusters.

This is a pretty ridiculous state of affairs.  Every President makes one or two bad decisions when it comes to appointments — some at the cabinet level, some below it.  Sometimes those folks get weeded out before confirmation hearings (see Richardson, Bill) and sometimes they get defeated in the Senate.  The latter scenario is, however, quite rare — since the Senate 1981 refusal to confirm John Tower, Reagan’s first choice to lead DOD, I don’t think any Cabinet pick has gone down to defeat.

Even in the case of controversial sub-Cabinet officials — like John Bolton — defeat usually comes not because of a vote against confirmation, but rather as a result of either a single Senator’s decision to put a hold on it (a favorite tactic of Jesse Helms) or a filibuster.  In almost every single one of those cases — even that of Bolton — the candidate would have been confirmed easily had it come to a full Senate vote.

For years scholars — particularly Norm Ornstein at AEI — have bemoaned the degree to which incoming Presidents have failed to understand the time it takes to vet, nominate, and confirm cabinet and sub-cabinet officials.  To its credit, the Obama Administration tried to respond, only to be derailed by the revelations that Geithner and Daschle had failed to pay their taxes.

But there’s another reality as well, one that is slowing the process almost as much as the glacial pace of vetting:  Senate Republicans no longer have much interest in working in a bipartisan fashion to get the Administration fully staffed in a time of multiple crises.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, April 29th, 2009 at 3:13 pm and is filed under politics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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