The recent filibusters of the Chuck Hagel (for Secretary of Defense) and John Brennan (for Director of Central Intelligence) have got me thinking about the Senate’s duty to “advise and consent” to the president’s nominees. Obviously a senator has the power to vote against the confirmation of anyone for any reason. But it seems to me that some reasons are clearly more legitimate than others, especially when we talk about cabinet nominations. (Judicial nominations are more complicated because of the lifetime tenure of the posts and because, unlike cabinet posts, judges do not directly answer to an elected official.)
In particular, Senators should only ever vote against a nominee because they believe that the nominee is unfit to hold the post to which he or she has been nominated.
So let’s start with what’s expected of a cabinet secretary. A cabinet secretary has three jobs:
- To advise the president.
- To administer his or her respective department.
- To perform certain other duties that are incumbent upon that particular secretary (e.g. the Secretary of State is expected to serve as a diplomat; the Attorney General is expected to perform certain legal duties; etc.)
As far as the first of those duties go, there isn’t really anything that the Senate can do. Sure, the senate can “advise” the president that a particular nominee is unlikely to be a good adviser, but at the end of the day the president can, will, and should be able to take advice from whosoever the president wants to. Voting against a nominee because they will provide bad advice is impractical, at best.
So that just leaves the other two. If there is reason to believe that a nominee is incapable of administering a federal bureaucracy, then it is perfectly reasonable to vote against them. If a senator believes that a nominee is not qualified to fill the other duties that will be expected of them, then it is perfectly reasonable to vote against them. This, by the way, was why I personally opposed the nomination of John Bolton as Bush’s Secretary of State a few years ago. His record as UN Ambassador was poor, and there was plenty of reason to doubt whether he was a skilled enough diplomat.
So what does that leave? What are bad reasons to vote against a nominee? Just to name a few that have been in the news lately: