Confirmation Hearings Aren't as Pointless as They Look
Donald Trump is unusually unpopular for an incoming president. His cabinet nominees are unusually controversial. Yet we can expect few cliffhangers this week, as the first wave of confirmation hearings begin, thanks to a basic reality: Democrats by themselves don't have the votes to stop any of them. It's one long-term effect of Republican blockades against Barack Obama's judicial and executive branch nominees, which pushed Democrats in fall 2013 to end the ability of minority parties to defeat those nominees by filibuster. And cabinet selections rarely failed, and most faced minimal opposition, long before that.
The truth is that hearings for executive branch nominations, especially cabinet-level picks for an incoming president, are rarely about whether the nominee will be confirmed or rejected. Hearings are, historically speaking, primarily a part of the policy-making process in a government of separate institutions sharing powers -- as well as an opportunity for parties and individual senators to spread awareness for themselves and their agendas.
Battle Lines Are Drawn
The hearings are an opportunity for the president's party gets to repeat how terrific the incoming administration is, and what fabulous plans it has for whatever department or agency the nominee will head. The out-party gets to attack the new administration, often by singling out some unpopular policy proposal the president-elect proposed and asking the nominee if he or she supports that awful idea.
Typically, this part of the ritual has little to do with immediate policy choices (it may even consist of dredging up positions the president-elect took early in the campaign but later abandoned). But it does serve to signal to attentive audiences which part of the new president's agenda is a priority, and which parts the president and members of Congress consider popular and unpopular. Relatively little is known about Trump's policy plans. Every little bit helps.
Promises Are Made -- and Kept
Senators use confirmation hearings to extract promises from the nominee. Has there been a scandal in the department or agency? Reports of poor management? Does it favor some states over others in some way? Is there anything at all within the nominee's new jurisdiction that the senator would like to influence? Confirmations are the opportunity to at least attempt to secure serious pledges of action.
Individual senators do have some some leverage. They can't, by themselves, defeat a nominee. But they can slow down confirmation (as Sarah Binder explains, a party or just a single senator can push confirmation back a few days). Since Trump wants swift confirmation of his cabinet, it's easy to imagine him giving in on minor policy matters to achieve that goal, or to imagine an individual nominee appeasing senators in order to avoid being the one who slowed things down.
And confirmed officials to tend to keep their promises to the Senate, which has budget authority over their departments or agencies. Perhaps the most famous such promise was made by Attorney General nominee Elliot Richardson to the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1973. The committee would only approve Richardson if he pledged to appoint a special prosecutor for Watergate, and further promised he would not fire that prosecutor. When Richard Nixon ordered Richardson to fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox later that year, Richardson refused and was himself fired, and the episode (the "Saturday Night Massacre") was the point at which impeachment suddenly became a very real possibility.
So confirmation hearings can matter very much indeed. Even when nominees are confirmed.
Senators Get the Spotlight
Sure, even the most captivating hearings aren't going viral or demanding deep coverage on national newscasts, though Senator Corey Booker of New Jersey is trying break through by testifying against his fellow senator and attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions. After all, most senators do see a president when they look in a mirror, and they'll take any chance to try to raise themselves to presidential stature.
In most cases, however, it's an opportunity for senators to ask "tough" questions that might help them carve out some attention in media markets back in their home state. Granted, the demise of local news makes this less useful than it once was, but it is still one of the ways senators slowly build up name recognition and favorable attitudes over their six-year terms. At least, they still believe that's the case -- which is why they'll ask grandstanding questions, even if they repeat what one of their colleagues already said.
A senator can also stall confirmation indefinitely by placing a "hold" on a nomination, but only if the majority leader respects that hold. Holds are nothing more than threats to filibuster; since single senators, or even all 48 Senate democrats, don't have the ability to defeat a nomination by filibuster, the majority leader need not respect holds.
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