Advice on Consent

SEVERAL lessons can be drawn from the acrimonious sinking of Henry Foster, President Clinton's nominee for surgeon general:

*"Payback time" vengeance in the confirmation process has gotten out of hand.

*A clearer distinction should be made between nominees meant to join a president's official family and nominees for the Supreme Court.

*Good citizens are being increasingly savaged because they have been caught in the cross-fire of grudge politics.

*White House background checks of nominees should be more rigorous before candidates are sent into the lions' den.

Republican and Democratic congressional leaders owe it to the nation to hold quiet discussions on how to reduce the tit-for-tat grudge factor. Such temperature-lowering talk could wait until after the 1996 elections. But by then Democrats in the Senate might be seeking to retaliate against a Republican president's appointees. Better to break the payback cycle sooner. The pro- and anti-abortion passions that have added to normal party differences in the Koop, Bork, Thomas, and Foster nominations are not likely to wane overnight.

In any informal discussions, party leaders would doubtless make a distinction between nominees to a president's cabinet and nominees for the high court and some key agencies.

The former serve only for the term of the president and are that executive's close advisers. The latter serve far longer (in the case of the justices, judges, or federal reserve governors) and join either totally or semi-independent power centers in the constitutional system.

The 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion decision focused attention on the power of the Supreme Court and the influence of future appointees as sharply as any issue since the court's desegregation decisions. The verb "borked," the writing of books jabbing at Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas, and now the ordeal of Dr. Foster all derive from that intensity. Ironically, Foster's post would have carried no such judicial power or longevity.

In the long run of US history, Senate confirmation scrutiny is a shifting subject. Cabinet departments come and go. Ditto agencies. The top court is activist or relatively quiescent. And senators tend to respond in kind. But at this particular juncture we believe the public would applaud a cooling down of confirmation-fighting tactics.

The following might serve as a general yardstick: Advice and consent from the Senate should lean toward routine acceptance of a president's choices of advisers. Tougher and more exhaustive - but still civil - scrutiny is desirable for positions whose independence and duration provide far-reaching checks on the executive and legislative branches.

It wouldn't hurt, also, for White House screeners to be much more rigorous in their background checks before nominees are sent up Pennsylvania Ave. Achilles heels draw arrows.

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