January 31, 2013

The confirmation process for Chuck Hagel, nominated to be defense secretary, is a good example of just how far off the rails executive-branch nomination and confirmation has gone.

There’s basically little in it for the Senate when senators turn nominations into a series of gotcha moments and efforts to extrapolate the broad political philosophy of executive-branch nominees. The former, of course, is always useless; the latter is quite sensible (albeit much harder than it seems) for judicial nominees, but far less so for executive-branch nominees. It just doesn’t really matter very much what Hagel’s true personal feelings might be about, say, Israel or nuclear weapons. Oh, it may matter a bit, but his effective attitudes will much more likely be determined by where he sits, not by who he is.

So what should senators be doing? What is the confirmation process supposed to be about?

1. Executive oversight. Republicans may be nuts to think that there’s a conspiracy to cover up what happened in Benghazi, but the instinct to use the occasion of new nominations to examine how the administration is carrying out its responsibilities is actually a good one.

2. Policy leverage. Two forms of this: Individual senators have traditionally used the confirmation process to obtain specific benefits for narrow constituencies; large groups, especially majorities, can also use the process to negotiate with the president over larger policies.

3. Grandstanding. Yes, senators will be senators; politicians will be politicians. Confirmation hearings, especially for high-profile nominees, are an opportunity to get some attention. Sure, it’s best if it’s done as part of practical oversight or policy influence (a senator can be both a workhorse and a showhorse), but it doesn’t have to be. As long as it’s not tied to voting against — much less filibustering — a nominee, it’s mostly harmless.

Instead, we’re getting meaningless gotcha politics backed up by routine filibusters. It’s bad for the government, and it’s even bad for the Senate. They should do better.