Republicans Seize Opportunity to Waste an Opportunity

Republican plans to force Burwell to stumble in her confirmation hearings are a bad idea.
Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the nominee be health and human services secretary, will have the first of two confirmation hearings on May 8, before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. She will testify later before the Senate Finance Committee. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Today in Doing It All Wrong:

One Republican aim is to trip up the 48-year-old White House budget director and force [an] embarrassing slip under the glare of the televised proceedings.

"One gaffe and they lose the news cycle," a Republican Party strategist said.

That's from The Hill's story about Republican preparations for the confirmation hearings for Department of Health and Human Services nominee Sylvia Mathews Burwell. It's hard to imagine a more pathetic goal.

Granted: the central problem for Republicans is that they squandered most of their leverage over executive branch nominations by abusing the filibuster. That left Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Democrats little choice but to go for the nuclear option and impose simple majority confirmation. Remember, Democrats were prepared to allow Republicans to kill some individual nominations by minority filibuster, but they drew the line at "nullification" filibusters that prevented posts from being filled. The only remedy Democrats had available ended those blockades, but also removed a lot of minority party (and single senator) leverage on all nominations. Oops!

Even so, there's still plenty that senators interested in substantive governing can do with executive branch nominations. They can push a nominee for information, or press for future policy commitments. It's harder to do that without the threat of a winning filibuster. But even without that leverage, many nominees (and their administration backers) would rather have the confirmation go through without making enemies in the Senate. Especially when those potential enemies could be in the majority party in a few months.

Instead, it seems that Republicans see confirmation hearings primarily as an opportunity to repeat talking points and campaign rhetoric, as a way to generate footage for campaign ads and, most frivolously, win a news cycle. In other words, they're exchanging a leverage point for substantive gains and devaluing the proceedings into a cross between a TV studio and a Twitter fight (not to mention that, as Greg Sargent suggests, this particular message isn't likely to resonate beyond Republicans' strongest supporters). Republicans seem to have forgotten that it doesn't matter who wins any particular news cycle. Not for governing, and not for winning elections months later.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.