"The Senate Rubberstamp Machine." That was the title of a watchdog group's report on confirmation of presidential appointees just 20 years ago. Just 10 years ago the rubber stamp became a bed of nails, and Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork was finally rejected. This week Anthony Lake, former head of the National Security Council (NSC), withdrew from a hard but less than Borkian ordeal before what pundits (and he) thought would be his ultimate Senate confirmation as CIA director.
Lost in recurring confirmation furors are points that might aid discussion of improving the process.
* Apart from some backstage political maneuvering, the Senate and its relevant committees still routinely confirm hundreds of major and minor appointments (often nominated first by senators). Chief executives should have their chosen associates unless these can be shown to be unfit.
* The confirmation process goes back to the president's constitutional power to make treaties and appointments "by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate." The "advice" may be implied by senatorial questions and attitudes. But no president has formally asked the Senate's advice since Washington tried to in person (the subject was an Indian treaty) and, to his chagrin, the matter was referred to committee.
As for "by and with consent," the inquisitorial flare-ups seem to be more "by" than "with." When controversy arises, so should collegiality. Let one branch of government work with another, not by its leave.
While awaiting such utopia, we were glad to hear that President Clinton had urged Mr. Lake to fight on, and that the president would have continued to fight too, something he has not done for every nominee. Lake said he was not concerned about what might be exposed about him. He wanted to end a "nasty and brutish" process that had gone on too long for him and the good of the CIA. But even fellow Democrat Bob Kerrey, vice chairman of the committee, questioned Lake's capacity to head the vast CIA after he apparently failed to safeguard the NSC from being importuned by political fund-raisers and donors.
For all its abuses, the confirmation process - like a tough primary campaign - is a test of candidates' mettle. A word of realism comes from Robert M. Gates, who went through the Senate wringer before being confirmed as President Bush's CIA director: "If you can't fight your way through the process ... my guess is you might not just do a hot job as director."