Donald H. Rumsfeld sailed through his confirmation hearing as President Bush's choice for secretary of Defense. But Rumsfeld could not resist telling the Senate Armed Services Committee how little he enjoyed the experience.
“The process of confirmation has become just unbelievable,” Rumsfeld said toward the end of his Jan. 11 hearing. He added, with a laugh, “I just hope each of you has that opportunity some day.”
Rumsfeld's half-jesting comment reflects a widespread belief that the confirmation process for presidential nominees has become more complex and more contentious over the past 15 years. Critics say partisan-minded senators, ax-grinding interest groups and sensation-seeking news media combine to force nominees to undergo minute examination of their personal and political lives and sometimes hostile examination of their political and ideological views.
“The opposition partisans have to be able to inflict some type of defeat on the incoming president through the confirmation process,” says Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute.
Linda Chavez, President Bush's initial choice for secretary of Labor, spoke for many of these critics of the confirmation process when she withdrew from the nomination on Jan. 9 because of questions about having sheltered an illegal Guatemalan immigrant a decade earlier.
Chavez said she took Marta Mercado into her home for about two years during the early 1990s to give her refuge from an abusive husband. Chavez said that she gave Mercado around $1,500 in spending money over that time and that Mercado performed some household chores. Chavez depicted the chores as normal help from a houseguest, but critics -- already concerned with Chavez's views on labor issues -- said the arrangement amounted to employing Mercado as a household worker without giving her proper pay and benefits or other labor-law protections.
In withdrawing her name, Chavez said that she was the victim of “the politics of personal destruction.” “So long as the game in Washington is a game of search and destroy,” she added, “I think we will have very few people who are willing to do what I did, which was to put myself through this in order to serve.”
Many observers agree that the confirmation process has developed what Paul C. Light, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution's Presidential Appointee Initiative, calls “an intense fascination with personal wrongdoing.” But Light and others blame Chavez herself for derailing her nomination by withholding information about the episode from FBI and Bush transition officials. “She didn't reveal what she needed to,” Light says. “She was her own worst enemy.”
Other Cabinet nominees also faced questions about personal finances and acted quickly to quell any controversy. Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill paid withholding taxes on a $150 payment to a household worker that he had depicted as a Christmas gift. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson agreed to sell stocks in several companies -- including the tobacco and food conglomerate Philip Morris Cos. and two pharmaceutical concerns -- to eliminate any potential conflict of interest.
Two other Bush Cabinet nominees -- Attorney General-designate John Ashcroft and Interior Secretary nominee Gale A. Norton -- faced intense questioning about their political views and records from Democratic senators and liberal interest groups. Republican lawmakers and conservative advocates defended Ashcroft and Norton in part by arguing that the questioning intruded on the president's prerogative to pick like-minded people for major positions.
Many political scientists, however, say the Senate should closely examine the ideological views of presidential nominees for Cabinet and other ranking positions. “The Senate always has the right to ask about the policy positions and ideological convictions of Cabinet nominees,” says Michael Sandel, a professor of government at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. “And it has a special responsibility to scrutinize these nominees given the dubious mandate produced by the election.”
James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington, says the questions directed at Ashcroft and Norton were appropriate because of their previous criticisms of laws enforced by the departments they were nominated to head.
“It's reasonable for senators to ask hard questions of candidates who they think may not enforce the laws,” Thurber says.
Conservatives date the supposed decline in the confirmation process from the fierce fight over President Ronald Reagan's unsuccessful nomination of Robert H. Bork to the Supreme Court in 1987. In fact, Light says, the Senate had a tradition of occasionally roughing up presidential nominees well before the Bork episode. But Light also says the confirmation process does go astray at times when political opponents of a nominee look for skeletons in the nominee's closet.
“They dig at the personal backgrounds to try to shake nominees who they can't challenge on ideological grounds.” Light says. “I would prefer to have debates about ideology and views rather than about whether someone did something 15 years ago of a questionable nature.”