"I have found that it is extremely difficult for me, as a Democrat, to question in a very serious way a Democratic nominee," Sen. James Abourezk told attorney general-designate Griffin B. Bell in January 1977.
Mr. Abourezk's candid 1977 remark raises a fundamental question for 1981: Will the newly elected Republican Senate rubber-stamp President-elect Reagan's cabinet choices or will top appointments be reviewed with care and deliberation?
The confirmation process has become perfunctory, far from the effective tool the founding fathers meant it to be. A 1977 Common Cause study showed that the Senate hastily considered President Carter's most important nominees without the benefit of clear standards, full records, or tough scrutiny. When shortcuts are taken, the Senate forfeits a key constitutional responsibility and an important opportunity to lay the basis for effective congressional oversight. With Ronald Reagan promising strong cabinet government, the stakes are especially high.
Serious Senate scrutiny ought not be misread as hostility to the new administration. It is simply a recognition of the Senate's independent constitutional responsibility. Surely Jimmy Carter would have been well served by a rigorous Senate investigation of Bert Lance's nomination.
Reagan will want the cabinet confirmed on inauguration day or soon after. It is a reasonable desire that is not necessarily in conflict with the goal of a thorough confirmation process. The Senate Republican leadership should agree now to procedures that include five important elements:
* Early hearings. Early hearings, now underway, could provide the Senate with the time to fulfill its responsibility while allowing Reagan to have his team in place soon after Jan. 20.
* Conflict of interest. One way to avoid debilitating confirmation battles is to require nominees to provide Senate committees with complete financial disclosure information, including a statement of how they will resolve potential conflicts of interest, in time for scrutiny prior to the confirmation hearings. Committees should not act on nominations until these statements have been reviewed by the Office of Government Ethics.
* Rigorous hearings. The patty-cake nature of questioning at confirmation hearings was best explained by acting comptroller of the currency Robert Bloom in justifying his praise for Bert Lance: "No one wants to be the skunk at the garden party." In 1977, only 10 of the hearings on President Carter's 49 most significant nominees lasted more than one day and only two more than two days. Witnesses were seldom called back. The hearings should settle questions about previous performance and possible conflicts of interest and lay the basis for future oversight. One example: Attorney general-designate William French Smith should be asked to explain in detail how he will protect the integrity and independence of the Justice Department while serving as a general purpose adviser.
* Affirmative standards. In the past, the Senate has generally based its confirmation judgment on a negative standard: Is the nominee not qualified to serve? Senate committees should be required to find that nominees are affirmatively qualified. Integrity, competence, and a commitment to carry out the laws faithfuly are essential qualifications. Senators should, however, give the President-elect's departmental nominees the benefit of the doubt on policy questions.
* Available and timely record: Committees seldom print hearing records prior to Senate floor action and rarely prepare substantive reports on nominations. During the entire 95th Congress, Senate committees prepared only seven reports on nominations, totaling a scant 85 pages. In order to facilitate debate, substantive reports on major nominations should be available at least three days before floor votes and should provide financial and personal background, summarize important testimony, and explain the nominee's affirmative qualifications.
The primary responsibility for seeing that the Senate does not shrink from its constitutional responsibility rests with new majority leader Howard Baker. He might profit by looking back to 1953, the last time voters swept into office a new Republican Senate and president. That Senate stared down Charles E. Wilson, President Eisenhower's choice for secretary of defense, and made him divest over $2 million of General Motors stock. And it was Baker's father-in-law, Everett M. Dirksen, who helped define the issue not as one of personal embarrassment but of compliance with a conflict of interest statute.
Wilson did not like it. But Sen. Richard Russell set him straight: "I'm sorry you feel that way, Mr. Wilson. I am not trying to push you around, but I have my respo nsibilities, too." So does the new Senate.