Democracy Dies in Darkness

The Fix

Is the Senate GOP really setting a new speed record on presidential nominations?

By Amber Phillips

January 9, 2017 at 12:13 PM

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Republicans on Capitol Hill in December. (Cliff Owen/AP)

Republicans are moving as quickly as they can to approve President-elect Donald Trump's Cabinet. Really, really quickly. Here's how quickly: They've planned at least nine confirmation hearings this week — and as many as five in one day.

Republicans are moving so quickly that Democrats — unable to block these nominees by procedural moves — have been crying foul, holding up as evidence a warning by a federal watchdog on Friday that it can't vet all the nominees in time.

"The transition team's collusion with Senate Republicans to jam through these Cabinet nominees before they've been thoroughly vetted is unprecedented," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Saturday.

The Republican reply: We won the election — we should get our nominees. "Grow up," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said.

As usual in Washington, two sides are screaming two totally different things. So who's right?

To investigate whether Republicans indeed are doing something unprecedented in the history of Senate confirmations, we need to look at — well, history. I called up two political encyclopedias — Donald Ritchie, the former official U.S. Senate historian, and Robert David Johnson, a history professor at Brooklyn College — to find out.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ken.) spoke briefly with reporters after meeting with President-elect Donald Trump to discuss the Senate's 2017 agenda on Jan. 9 at Trump Tower in New York. (The Washington Post)

Their answer: What Republicans are doing by rushing through their president's nominees isn't that new. In fact, it's pretty old.

Democrats' "unprecedented" claim is misleading, Johnson said, because for most of this century, "most Cabinet nominations sailed through with little or no oversight." Cabinet-level nominees have only recently (like in the past two decades) become a partisan squabble.

Up until the '70s, it was pretty normal to confirm everyone in big batches without a ton of vetting, Ritchie said. The conventional wisdom was that a president should get deference to pick his team and that the new administration should be able to start running the government as soon as possible.

But in 1977, Democrats, newly in power, got burned by doing that. They rushed through President Jimmy Carter's friend, Bert Lance, for Office of Management and Budget only to see him come under fire months later over allegations of mismanagement and corruption in his past life. Lance ended up resigning, and it was a very public embarrassment for Democrats so soon after Watergate.

Senators learned their lesson. Since then, vetting has become an accepted part of the process. But a byproduct of vetting has been to give the minority party more opportunities to raise questions about nominees (usually about whether the vetting process has been completed to the party's standards). And a byproduct of that is that nominations have increasingly become more contentious, usually along party lines.

Trump and his Republican allies appear to want to revert to the old-school way of doing things: rush through nominations while their vetting is still being done and hope no one has skeletons in their closet. (Senate Republicans point out President Obama's team had five hearings in one day -- totaling 12 in one week -- on his nominees. Democrats counter the vetting for these nominees had been done ahead of time.)

The end result: Both parties try to muddy the waters when they're in the minority. Consider this letter Schumer's staff sent McConnell on Monday -- a verbatim of McConnell's request in 2009 to slow the process down for Obama's nominees.

Historians say doing both vetting and nominating simultaneously could be be chancier than usual: Trump's administration is on path to become the richest in history, with business ties and a combined net worth far outpacing every other cabinet. Add on to that the fact that four nominees who have hearings this week don't even have all their paperwork in to be vetted, and you have the potential for Republicans to get burned the way Carter did in 1977.

"It would seem," Ritchie said, "that packaging the nominations into a single day would be reverting to the old style — but would also carry the old liability."

That being said, the fight over Trump's Cabinet is notable (if not unique) for political reasons: Mainly, that it's so damn politicized.

Johnson says 2017 is the first time there has pretty much zero bipartisan support for any nominees of an incoming president. Before this week's hearings even begin, some Democratic senators have said outright that they won't be voting for a nominee.

That's a notable marker in a nearly quarter-century trend of declining bipartisan cooperation on a president's nominees.

In 2017, historians are wondering whether we've reached a new normal of reflexive opposition to the other side's nominees. And, if so, what that will do to further erode the process.

Johnson says that's a potentially dangerous road for the opposition party to go down, because it risks undermining the Senate's constitutionally mandated job to advise on the president's nominees. If the party out of the White House will oppose a president's nominees no matter what, then why bother debating a president's nominees at all?

That's a question to which we don't yet have an answer.

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The Post’s Ed O’Keefe explains how confirmation hearings in the Senate work. (Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

Amber Phillips writes about politics for The Fix. She was previously the one-woman D.C. bureau for the Las Vegas Sun and has reported from Boston and Taiwan.

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