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John Waelti: The charade of cabinet confirmation hearings
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The U.S. Constitution states that the president shall nominate and appoint major office holders, including Cabinet members, judges of the Supreme Court, and other federal judges and major office holders. Major office holders include several non-Cabinet, but cabinet level, positions such as the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, director of the Office of Management and Budget, ambassador to the United Nations, and the White House Chief of Staff.

With the exception of the White House Chief of staff, Cabinet and sub-Cabinet level positions all require advice and consent of the Senate. This does not require committee hearings to forward the nomination to the Senate floor for vote. The vast majority of the many positions requiring Senate approval are not subjected to committee hearings. But major appointments have in recent decades been subjected to committee hearings.

Scholars cite several turning points leading to a more contentious process in recent times. The Watergate era during the Nixon Administration led to more vetting and scrutiny over conflicts of interest. The rejection of Justice Bork in 1987 for the Supreme Court was a bruising battle, rightly or wrongly, credited with setting the stage for more of such battles.

Party differences in control of the Executive and Legislative branches undoubtedly contribute to at least a show of contentiousness in Cabinet appointments. Nevertheless, in the final analysis, presidents usually end up with their nominees. The last presidential Cabinet nominee to be outright rejected was John Tower for Secretary of Defense in 1987.

Occasionally, a nominee will withdraw if a glitch of some kind comes up. Zoe Baird withdrew from President Clinton's nomination for Attorney General in 1993. She had neglected to pay Social Security taxes for her household help. Tom Daschle withdrew from nomination for Secretary of Health and Human Services in 2009. He had not declared access to limousine services from a client on his tax returns.

Several of Trump's nominees have unanswered questions on insider stock trading and tax issues far more egregious than those that torpedoed the nominations of Baird and Daschle. Republicans who were exercised over issues that stopped Baird and Daschle are unfazed by the far more egregious issues over Trump's current nominees. But then, that's to be expected. Republicans have characteristically been far more effective than Democrats at playing hard ball and working the refs, especially the broadcast media elite.

If these committee hearings don't change much, is there any useful purpose for holding them? Well, yes, sort of, for benefit of the public, but especially for the senators involved.

Immediately after initial nomination, each nominee is assigned to the relevant Senate committee. Prior to the hearing, each nominee meets privately with at least the committee chair and the ranking minority member of that committee.

It's during the formal committee hearings for the nominees of the most important Cabinet positions, and/or the most controversial nominations, that the show is put on for the public. Typically, a senator of the nominee's home state introduces and extolls the virtues of the nominee. The nominee then makes an opening statement, reaffirming the honor of appearing before the distinguished members of the committee.

Members of the committee then question the nominee. What is learned in this process, and what is the strategy of the committee members?

First of all, it must be recognized that the party controlling the senate, the Republicans, has the majority of votes on the committee. Furthermore, there is the tradition and general practice that, except in rare instances, the president gets his nominees recommended by the committee and confirmed on the Senate floor. Let's face it - the Republicans are in total control.

Nevertheless, the public can glean some information from these hearings. The nominee is questioned on positions and policy issues facing his/her respective department. The members of the majority party will ask "softball questions," and reaffirm the virtues of the nominee, while using the opportunity to exploit valuable television time.

Members of the minority party, the Democrats, question the nominee on issues of their concern, attempting to get a public commitment to particular positions. This is their opportunity to exploit any differences between the nominee's positions and those of the president.

While the questions of the majority Republicans will be "softball," a smooth politician, such as Sen. Marco Rubio, can also ask some "hard questions," playing the game to his own advantage.

At his hearing, Trump's then-nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson's alleged connection to Russia was at issue. The Democrats naturally asked some hard questions. Much to the delight of the media, Republican Sen. Rubio also asked some unusually tough questions, expressing doubt over the nominee's qualifications.

Rubio shrewdly withheld his vote until he obtained written questions from Tillerson and held a private meeting with him in his office.

It should have surprised no one who was paying attention that Rubio eventually cast his affirmative vote for Tillerson.

So, Rubio wins all the way around. If newly sworn-in Secretary of State Tillerson eventually gets into trouble, Rubio can cite his early cautionary wisdom. At the same time, Rubio, who sees himself as presidential timber, can cite his party loyalty, having made a "tough vote."

More importantly for Rubio, he gained valuable television exposure and praise from the gushing broadcast media half-wits, having played them like a fiddle. Trump should be proud, if not jealous.

In the final analysis, the hearings for Cabinet nominees serve some public interest, sort of.

- John Waelti of Monroe, a retired professor of economics, can be reached at His column appears Fridays in The Monroe Times.