The pattern of permitting new presidents to form Cabinets of their own choosing, and enabling them to get started promptly, began to erode after the inauguration of the administration I served. President Barack Obama saw four of his 15 nominees delayed beyond his first weeks in office. Then President Trump was blocked on all but three. Now we read that an opposition Senate — if that is what results from the coming runoff elections in Georgia — may challenge a large number of President-elect Joe Biden’s nominees.
News reports indicate that one nominee to be so targeted is Neera Tanden, proposed for the office in which I once served. Let’s hope a different view prevails regarding Biden’s choices, starting with that appointment. It may sound old-fashioned, but to me there is no good reason to depart from a presumption of deference in this instance.
Republicans have legitimate grievances after a record-shattering, well over 300 cloture votes obstructing Trump nominees. And some senators, we’re told, have individual reasons to oppose Tanden. Apparently indulging in another collapsed standard of our times, she in the past tweeted or otherwise emitted a number of unkind, personal nastygrams aimed at some of those who now will consider her nomination.
Shame on her. But, in the recent toxic wasteland of national affairs, if we disqualify everyone who ever unleashed a smarmy or juvenile cheap shot, we’d have very few people left in Washington. Don’t tempt me.
Another reason for Republicans to stay their hand is, frankly, the Office of Management and Budget isn’t that important, or at least it’s not likely to be for the next few years. OMB can be an enormously effective instrument, but it depends entirely on the philosophy and governing approach of whoever is president. As a general rule, administrations favoring big spending, hyperactive regulation, and unfettered departments and agencies don’t have as much use for OMB. Odds are that the next administration will prefer higher levels of spending and rulemaking, and OMB will have correspondingly less influence over events.
Deferring to Biden’s OMB choice, as well as most if not all others in this initial round, would be not an endorsement of any individual but just a small display of the respect once shown to the other side’s presidents and to the office they hold. One day, when Republicans return to the executive branch, they might be glad they did.
Confirmation of Tanden in particular would demonstrate a willingness, not seen often in recent days, to overlook the personal and the petty, to honor the biblical injunction and “return no one evil for evil.” I’m presuming here that senators are, as they frequently claim to be, troubled by the harshness and crudity of our current political discourse. So here’s a chance to demonstrate it, along with a degree of magnanimity. (You remember what that is.)
Conversely, a confirmation hearing dominated by histrionic recitations of previous little insults and so’s-your-old-man rejoinders will just make a dreary situation worse. The issue isn’t whether payback is deserved. The very fact that it arguably is would make refraining that much more magnanimous.
Acquiescing in this appointment would not preclude for a moment confrontations over policy as vigorous and even rancorous as senators think warranted. Goodness knows, I had them. All these years later, people still occasionally bring up to me C-SPAN duke-outs I had with such senators such as Robert Byrd and Fritz Hollings, who had been among the 100 ayes on that OMB confirmation tally sheet.
My own previous encounters with Tanden were invariably adversarial. When I was governor of Indiana, her interest group attacked our state reforms of health care, infrastructure and education, always harshly (and, as the subsequent evidence showed, unjustifiably). I was once disinvited from a forum her organization was hosting for the sin of disagreeing about yet another issue. But, were I voting in the Senate, I would save my criticisms, and negative ballots, for the substantive arguments to come, regardless of who is at OMB.
Sadly, from public profanity to violence on TV to the collapse of objective journalism, we have seen that it is rare if not impossible to revive standards once they have decayed and ratcheted downward. The tradition of granting deference to a new president’s picks may not yet be beyond resuscitation, but one more cycle like the last one and it probably will be. Confirming Neera Tanden would be a small and cost-free step toward reviving the comity and civility we have lost.