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Advise and Stall
Senate Republicans Are Holding Up Key Nominees

By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Miriam Sapiro was nominated to be deputy U.S. trade representative in April. The Senate Finance Committee voted -- unanimously -- to confirm her in July.

She's still not in the job -- because Sen. Jim Bunning, Republican of Kentucky, is unhappy with the Canadian Parliament.

Seriously.

Bunning is upset about a measure pending before Canadian lawmakers that would restrict tobacco companies from adding candy flavorings to cigars and cigarettes. The measure is aimed at reducing youth smoking, but Kentucky lawmakers claim it would harm tobacco companies there -- and violate trade rules -- because chocolate is used as an additive to moderate the taste of Kentucky-grown burley tobacco.

So Bunning wants U.S. trade authorities to intervene, even though federal law restricts them from promoting tobacco use. And he is holding Sapiro hostage, leaving the trade office without a political appointee overseeing such crucial issues as the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Doha round of trade talks, and the pending trade agreements with Panama and Colombia.

Sapiro isn't alone. For all the bellyaching about the Obama administration's supposed excess of policymaking czars outside the normal appointment process, Senate Republicans have been blocking confirmation of a disturbing number of administration nominees, many for reasons having nothing to do with their suitability for their jobs.

No one has clean hands here. Slow-walking nominations is a bipartisan sport. Democrats also pulled this stunt -- often as a gambit to dislodge documents that they believed the Bush administration was improperly withholding. The Obama administration's quick start on making nominations has slowed to a trickle, lessening the pressure on the Senate to deal with the backlog. And, ultimately, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has the power to force a vote on a pending nomination -- if he wants to take the time to do it.

Nonetheless, that's no excuse for letting advise and consent degenerate into sit around and wait. Until Tuesday, when Tom Perez was confirmed as assistant attorney general for civil rights -- more than six months after being nominated -- five of 11 assistant attorney general positions were unfilled.

Some other examples:

-- Missouri Republican Kit Bond is holding up confirmation of Martha Johnson, the nominee to head the General Services Administration, because the agency has been balking at constructing a $175 million federal building for Kansas City. Johnson's nomination has been languishing on the Senate floor since June.

-- Louisiana Republican David Vitter has a hold on Paul Anastas to be an assistant administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency until the EPA agrees to delay issuing regulations on formaldehyde, which has been classified as a probable human carcinogen. The irony of Vitter's hold is that one of the biggest potential problems with the chemical involves Hurricane Katrina survivors exposed to formaldehyde in FEMA trailers.

-- Meanwhile, Ohio Republican George Voinovich is holding up the nominee for EPA's deputy administrator, Robert Perciasepe, because Voinovich believes the EPA is underestimating the cost to households of climate change legislation. In a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, Voinovich acknowledged that his hold is not "a reflection on Mr. Perciasepe's ability to perform in the role of the deputy administrator."

-- South Carolina Republican Jim DeMint is blocking confirmation of Arturo Valenzuela to be assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere because Valenzuela had the temerity to call the military coup ousting Honduran President Manuel Zelaya a "classic military coup."

-- Eight Republican senators, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, warned Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius that "we will not consent" to Senate floor action on nearly a dozen nominations -- including the U.S. surgeon general -- until the department rescinds what they termed a "gag order" on health insurers.

-- Some nominations can't even get out of committee, with the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee a particular black hole. Two nominees for the National Labor Relations Board have been mired there since April. Patricia Smith, the nominee for solicitor of labor, is about to get a committee vote after having been stuck there since March.

Jackie Berrien was nominated in July to chair the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but Republicans have refused to act on her nomination until a pick for a Republican vacancy is named. Commissioner Christine Griffin has been confirmed to be deputy director of the Office of Personnel Management but can't leave to take that spot because the EEOC would be left without a quorum.

Being in the minority isn't fun. Gumming up the works with holds is one of the few ways to get attention -- and action. But it's no way to run a government.

marcusr@washpost.com

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