Friday, July 20 , 2018, 2:55 am | Overcast 66º


Susan Estrich: Senators at Play with Vital, Quality Obama Administration Nominees

With luck, Michelle Friedland, a highly qualified appointee to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, will be confirmed when the Senate returns from its two-week recess on April 28.

Actually, if the Senate were comprised of grownups who work for us, instead of grownups who act like children, she would have been confirmed before the recess, but that’s not the way things are going in the Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., had hoped to hold the vote on Thursday, April 10, but under the rules, Republicans can insist on 30 hours of debate per nominee, which they now are doing routinely to punish the Democrats for pushing through the new rule that a judicial or executive nominee can be confirmed by a majority vote.

“We have not yielded back post-cloture time on judicial nominations since the so-called nuclear option was triggered last November,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. “We have followed the rules of the United States Senate.”

In Friedland’s case, that would have meant a vote at 5 p.m. on Friday, April 11, not April 10. But the fact is, the Republicans were not actually planning to use the time to have a debate on this nomination. They were planning to leave town for the two-week recess.

Reid tried to claim the high ground for Democrats, but that wasn’t exactly true, either.

“I’m so sorry for the inconvenience ... but Republicans know, for them, it’s pretty easy,” he said. “They can just walk out of here. It’s our burden to run the country. We’re not going to be able to do that. We’re going to have to vote and approve these two people. ... We’ve been elected to be U.S. senators.”

Not so fast.

Late that Thursday, Reid postponed the vote on Friedland to April 28 because, as one Senate aide told the media, everyone left town, including the Democrats.

Friedland really is very lucky. I know any number of nominees, especially to ambassadorships, who may never reach the floor of the Senate, even though no one is opposing their nominations. President Barack Obama’s administration and Democratic Senate leaders are, for obvious reasons, focusing on judges, who will serve long after Obama leaves office. That leaves a lot of other folks waiting in the wings for an opportunity that may never come.

Do all of these people deserve to be confirmed? Not necessarily. Before the nuclear option was invoked, some of them would have been voted down, or never brought up for a vote, because of legitimate questions about their qualifications.

The tradition of appointing major fundraisers to plum ambassadorships is an old one. I remember campaign officials in the first Bush administration complaining that not enough of their big donors had gotten the plums they’d been promised (including one, a New Hampshire car dealer, who was probably about as knowledgeable about foreign affairs as the favorite whipping boy of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the nominee to serve in Norway who didn’t know that Norway is a monarchy). Grownups might agree that ambassadors, for instance, should have visited the country where they will serve before coming up for a vote and should know who the leader is (a test candidate George W. Bush once failed, as I recall, when asked by a Boston reporter, but that’s another story).

But this isn’t about fairness. It isn’t an exercise of logic. This is politics, played at the schoolyard level, with people’s lives and reputations held in the balance.

Republicans say that Democrats started it by changing the rules to allow 51 votes to confirm instead of 60. Democrats say they had no choice because Republicans were being obstructionist — and now Democrats say Republicans are being obstructionist. Meanwhile, important posts go unfilled, and nothing gets done. If the Republicans controlled the White House and the Senate, does anyone doubt that they would be doing just what the Democrats are doing, and that the Democrats would be following the Grassley playbook?
If our kids played this way, we’d call a timeout and tell them they need to “grow up.” But what do you say to the grownups?

Susan Estrich is a best-selling author, the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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