Hearings and Evasions

By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, January 14, 2009

You might think a confirmation hearing for, say, the labor secretary would elicit her views on, say, labor issues. Not, it seems, in the case of Barack Obama's nominee, California Democratic Rep. Hilda Solis.

Should President Obama lift the Bush-era executive order requiring that federally funded construction projects be open to both union and nonunion contractors?

"Senator, I would just say to you that that is an item of great interest to me. I think that that is something that I am not able to speak to you [about] at this time but will like to review and then come back to you personally on that matter."

What about giving private employers more leeway to implement comp and flextime arrangements?

"I would like to explore that more with this committee. . . . But that's something that I think I'm not prepared to give you a complete answer on at this time."

Should states continue to be allowed to enact right-to-work laws prohibiting workers from being required to join unions or pay dues?

"I don't believe that I am qualified to address that at this time."

And what about the hottest-button labor issue, legislation that would let unions organize if a majority of workers sign cards?

Solis wouldn't comment -- despite the fact that she, not to mention the president-elect, co-sponsored the measure. Indeed, she said, she and Obama hadn't even discussed it.

"My position as a nominee for President-elect Obama to serve as secretary of labor doesn't, in my opinion, afford me the ability to provide you with an opinion at this time."

You get the point.

Solis didn't seem stumped by these questions. Perhaps she simply decided -- or was instructed by her handlers -- to say nothing controversial, nothing that would bind the new administration, nothing that would either enrage its labor allies or alienate Republicans and moderate Democrats.

The new transparency, it seems, has its limits.

This is a familiar drill. The nominee's goal is to ruffle as few feathers as possible. The opposition party's interest is often not so much eliciting the truth as making trouble -- or, at least, creating a record with which trouble can be made.

Some amount of evasive maneuvering at these sessions is unavoidable. Confirmation hearings aren't let-it-all-hang-out moments. There are policy positions on which a new administration in particular may be genuinely undecided. Fair enough.

But Solis was not a judicial nominee inappropriately pressed to discuss a case that might come before her. How can senators consent if they have no clue what policies they might be consenting to? Perhaps her hearing was an anomaly; the latest blizzard of hearings -- for Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, Arne Duncan as education secretary, Steven Chu as energy secretary -- seemed more illuminating.

Still, it's important to point out: Democrats had little tolerance for nonanswers when Republican nominees were doing the bobbing and weaving. It is an imperfect comparison, but recall their consternation -- and ensuing "no" votes -- when Michael Mukasey, in his confirmation hearing to be attorney general, said he did not have enough information about the precise technique involved to say that waterboarding was torture.

Presidents are entitled to significant deference in choosing executive branch officials. Mere policy disagreements are insufficient grounds for rejection. But the flip side of that permissive standard is that the Senate deserves a modicum of frankness.

In fact, that might even be in the interest of the new administration. After all, unlike a judicial nomination, a Cabinet secretary's hearing is not a one-time deal but the start of a relationship. The Solis method may not be the best way to begin a beautiful friendship with your committee of jurisdiction -- or to launch a new era of bipartisanship.

A wise senator once put it this way: "While the initiative for selection originates with the president, we have [a] solemn responsibility to get a sense of the person the president has selected." Too often, he said, "We have made a grave error in failing to press nominees on their policy positions only to find out later that their positions are anathema once they are in office."

That was Vice President-elect Joe Biden, at the 1981 confirmation hearing for Ronald Reagan's attorney general William French Smith. The new administration might benefit from taking a good look at that dusty old transcript -- and taking Biden's words to heart.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company