Hard-knock hearings: good for democracy?

Critics say process is too personal. But to others, it forces nominees to justify views.

This week's cabinet hearings - complete with dueling interest groups, pontificating senators, and pouncing media - are all but guaranteed to produce rancor, posturing, and personal attacks. It's exactly the kind of partisan scene that turns many Americans off to Washington politics.

Yet there's a broader perspective that says the whole vetting process is not only necessary, but actually good for democracy.

The idea is this: Nominees - especially controversial ones - now face scrutiny on both character and ideology. At the very least, the process forces them to articulate and rationalize their beliefs and convictions. Occasionally, the hearings may uncover the kind of extreme views or questionable behavior that would render the nominee unpalatable to the general public.

Critics contend the process has become too personal and is causing decent people to avoid government service. But others say the tougher the test the nominees face, the more likely those who pass will succeed in office.

"It's a good thing that John Ashcroft may spend a few days in front of the [Senate] Judiciary Committee," says historian Arthur Schlesinger of President-elect Bush's nominee for attorney general. Mr. Ashcroft's hearings are expected to continue today.

Not only are tough questions "entirely consistent with the prerogative of the Senate," Mr. Schlesinger says, but given the closeness of the 2000 election, they're almost required. Mr. Bush "is the popular-vote loser," he says, and "has to expect a certain amount of scrutiny."

Scrutiny indeed. Ashcroft is the focus of several interest-group coalitions. Opposing his nomination is StopAshcroft.com, which includes abortion-rights organizations and the Million Mom March gun-control group, among others. On the other side, Americans for a Bush Cabinet is backing Ashcroft and Bush's other controversial nominees, including Interior Secretary-designate Gale Norton.

If the debate centers on ideology and issues, it can be helpful to the nation, says Richard Harwood, president of the Harwood Institute in Bethesda, Md. "Now more than ever, a robust debate about cabinet nominees' views is needed," he says, "because the country isn't sure which direction it wants to go."

Steering toward the center

In general, the pummeling by interest groups from both sides has "a moderating effect on the cabinet," says Duke University political scientist John Aldrich. He points out, however, that centrist pressures can be uneven. Not all ideologues have tough battles, just those who "are at the opposite end of the political spectrum from organized interests."

That's certainly the case for Ashcroft and Ms. Norton. Other ideology-driven confirmation battles have included the Supreme Court nominations of Robert Bork and Louis Brandeis. In 1987, Mr. Bork's nomination was torpedoed by a liberal-moderate coalition. And in 1916, Mr. Brandeis faced off against the conservative legal establishment - and barely survived confirmation.

But it's not just ideology that's scrutinized. It's character and personal style, too.

When Linda Chavez announced her withdrawal as Bush's Labor secretary nominee earlier this month, she lamented "the politics of personal destruction." Indeed, one tactic of opposition groups is to attempt character assassination.

Yet one of the major lessons from Ms. Chavez's brief saga as nominee is that her lack of candor about the illegal immigrant who lived with her several years ago may have cost her a cabinet post.

The conventional wisdom in Washington is that if she had declared from the start that she had a problematic piece of history, she would have stood a better chance of keeping Bush's support.

Vettings in hindsight

Across history, hindsight hints that sometimes a more thorough vetting process might have been useful. "Almost every administration has had someone who, if they'd had a tougher screening, probably wouldn't have made it to their post," says Michael Birkner, a historian at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania.

Take Harold Talbott, President Eisenhower's Air Force secretary. He was forced to resign after he was discovered using Air Force stationery to drum up business for his former firm, in which he still had an interest.

A tougher screening might have saved Eisenhower some embarrassment.

Sparing embarrassment

Sometimes, too, such a vetting might even spare the individual some grief later on. Take Ray Donovan, President Reagan's Labor secretary, who was indicted - but never convicted - for setting up a minority front man to head his company so it would get special treatment.

After the judge threw out the case, Mr. Donovan famously asked, "Where do I go to get my reputation back?"

A confirmation process that exposed the issue might have allowed him "to defend himself publicly, not under indictment," says Dr. Birkner.

In all, he says, "Human nature being what it is, and temptation being what it is..., it's sometimes useful to have more information about these top officials."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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