Senate Confirmation Hearings: Why So Many Feelings?

With Obama’s second term now officially underway, the administration wasted no time in moving forward with its cabinet reshuffle. The American government is one of very few in the world that allows its legislative bodies anything other than a confirmation formality when it comes to ministerial appointments. In fact, unlike much of the rest of the Western world, the American congress is arguably the biggest hurdle for any secretary level position. In the coming weeks, the confirmation hearings and votes for Secretary of State, Secretary of Defence, and Director of the CIA will no doubt place extreme political strain on all parties involved.

You only need to look back to mid-December to see an example of the U.S. Senate derailing a first choice Obama nomination. At the time, Susan Rice was widely being touted as the heir apparent to Hillary Clinton’s position as Secretary of state. Over the next few weeks however, a number of prominent Republican senators launched what was an extremely effective attack on Rice’s credentials. They specifically focused on Rice’s public comments on the Benghazi Embassy attacks and presented them as evidence of their incompetence. In the end, Rice withdrew her name from consideration due to what she saw as an untenable and divisive confirmation path. Ironically, when the report on Benghazi came out shortly afterwords, Rice was cleared of any wrongdoing.

This example and the way the current hearings have shaped up point to a scary conclusion: The Senators in charge of vetting some of the most powerful men and women in America often do so based on personal griefs, vendettas, and opinions rather than a holistic view for the benefit of the nation. Chuck Hagel, a former Republican Senator from Nebraska and Obama’s choice for Secretary of Defence, is facing a similar barrage of attacks from the same group that downed Rice’s chance at Secretary of State. The interesting part comes when one looks at the specific wording of the critiques of both Rice and Hagel. The disapproving Senators, such as John McCain, generally phrase their critiques with words like: “I want to know….” and “our personal irreconcilable differences”. The foremost ideology on the minds of these Senators is not what the country deems best, but what they personally like or dislike about the work, stances, and mannerisms of the candidates. In essence, the selection of minister level leaders in part seems to come down to the personal relationships between the candidates and the senate.

This theory is given further credence when one looks at the breeze of a confirmation process that Senator John Kerry has had in his path to Secretary of State. As a man who has spent decades working and leading the senate foreign relations committee, he built strong personal bonds with McCain and others that have criticized the Rice and Hagel choices. This was clearly reflected in the love-fest that was Kerry’s hearing where comments such as “I’ve had the immense pleasure of working with you for decades….” and “I trust your leadership and judgment…..” were to say the least, plentiful across the board. While some of the criticism and praise in these hearings is certainly on the professional performance of candidates, all too much of it seems to be of what individual senators personally feel about potential secretaries.

I would argue that this is a significant flaw in the U.S. System, but I will also admit that the theoretical conception of a mufti-tiered appointment system is beneficial to prevent appointments of incapable officials. Nonetheless, a move away from the current media-fueled slander campaigns towards a more rational confirmation hearing in which the people had more of a say would undoubtedly benefit all parties involved. Unfortunately, the state and manner of American democracy makes these changes nothing more than a pipe-dream and we are likely stuck with the current system for the foreseeable future.

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