Our Constitution gives to the U.S. Senate the job of offering advice and consent to the president in appointments of advisers, ambassadors and judges.
If you watched the hearing on President Obama’s nominee to head the Defense Department, Chuck Hagel, you might have thought the instructions had been changed from “advise and consent” to “posture and pummel.”
The grilling of the former Republican senator was essentially a public airing of old grievances among ex-friends that would have been better left to a psychiatrist’s couch.
In the end, Hagel will probably get confirmed, now that Republicans on the committee have gnawed off their pound of flesh for the benefit of Fox News.
The spectacle raises the question, again, of the Senate’s proper role in vetting presidential nominees. How much deference should senators show to a president’s preferences?
The answer, I think, hinges on the type of job. Let’s first state the Senate should always have the right to block from government service a person manifestly unfit because of corruption or incompetence.
That said, the party that lost the last presidential election should not be able to undo the will of electorate by denying a president the lieutenants he needs to execute the policies the voters just endorsed.
That is nothing other than a slow-motion coup.
By that measure, nominees for subordinate posts in Cabinet-level agencies should be swiftly and routinely confirmed, absent clear evidence of unfitness for any office.
Cabinet-level nominees deserve more scrutiny, but on the same presumption that the president deserves to be able to pick his own team – unless his selection reflects a glaring lack of judgment.
One exception, perhaps, might be attorney general – since that person is not just a lieutenant of the chief executive, but also the nation’s chief law enforcement officer. The Senate has a right to ensure the attorney general has a proper grasp and respect for the Constitution and the rule of law.
Judges are a wholly different matter. They are not temporary members of a President’s team. They are lifetime appointees, who shape the law of the land and hold power over individuals’ liberty and livelihoods.
Let’s not live in la-la land. Judges are political; they have viewpoints that both follow and influence the national conversation. That’s why the process ideally should produce a bench that reflects all points on the spectrum of sane political viewpoint in the land.
Personally, I’d prefer federal courts that feature a few strong, articulate proponents of the philosophical poles of the debate, but have a majority of jurists clustered in the center, making their rulings unpredictably, basing them on the idiosyncratic facts of each case.
It’s really not that complicated. It’s only our partisan, broken Congress that makes it seem so.