Senate Republicans Aren't Hearing So Well

At least not when it comes to Trump's Cabinet nominees. In their rush to confirm, they have skipped over some crucial steps of the vetting process. If we don't make them slow down and do their jobs properly, we may end up with a Cabinet who will serve only themselves, not the American people.

His policies will be implemented by the people that he is picking to run various government agencies, and he has made some troubling choices, to put it mildly. They will set the policies for much of the government--for education, urban development, environmental protection, homeland security, the military, foreign policy, and much else.

When Trump says that his appointees will have no trouble being confirmed, he’s probably right. If history is a guide, any appointee who gets to a confirmation vote is likely to be confirmed, and congressional Republicans are hastening this along by flouting ethical standards.

In a normal year, each nominee submits financial and other disclosure forms to the non-partisan Office of Government Ethics, and the FBI conducts a background check. The OGE conducts an investigation (which can take weeks), and then reaches an agreement with the nominee spelling out steps to eliminate conflicts of interest. All of this is completed days or weeks in advance of the next step, Senate committee hearings. The committee members ask each candidate probing questions about their policy views and potential conflicts of interest. They then issue a recommendation on whether the nominee should be confirmed. Finally, the entire Senate votes to confirm or not, and it is decided by a simple majority vote.

This year, however, some of the hearings have been held (and other hearings are scheduled to be held) before the background checks and ethics reviews are completed (and in a few cases before the disclosure forms have even been submitted). By avoiding a proper vetting, Trump hopes to ensure his nominees skate to confirmation without having any trouble caused by those pesky ethics reviews.

To make it clear, this is the first time hearings have ever been held before the ethics reviews were completed. When Obama began his presidency, his appointees had completed the financial disclosure forms and ethics agreements six days to several weeks in advance of the hearings. Mitch McConnel himself has called for timely vetting, when it was Obama’s nominees. Somehow now that it’s Trump’s nominees he has changed his mind.

The OGE has even complained that they are being overwhelmed by the heavy rushed workload and have objected to the hearings being held before the ethics probe is completed. For a Cabinet composed of billionaires with extensive business dealings, there is a serious potential for conflicts of interest, so it is vital that the nominees are properly investigated.

Under Bush and Obama, nominations failed due to things like unpaid taxes and employing undocumented immigrants. So far during this round, Betsy Devos omitted a $125,000 donation to an anti-labor political group in her disclosure forms. She has also donated over $20 million to the Republican party since 1989, including to some members of the committee that is supposed to vet her. Jeff Sessions failed to disclose rights to oil extracted near a federal wildlife preserve. Other things will no doubt be revealed about the appointees.

The hearings are supposed to give Congress a chance to investigate such issues and decide whether they are grounds for disqualification. I’m not quite sure how they will be able ask about these things if they don’t know about them. A ouiji board, maybe?

Clearly, that isn’t what the Republicans care about. No surprise for a party that elected a man who has still not released his tax returns.

They tried to schedule hearings for six nominees on Wednesday, when they were also voting on the budget. This is a blatant attempt to overwhelm the opposition. They want to undermine proper vetting of the candidates and mute public outrage by having too much going on at the same time for the media to cover it effectively. Trump further distracted everyone by scheduling his first news conference in months during the hearings.

The Republicans want to keep any problems with the nominees under the public radar to prevent outrage that can stoke effective opposition. They are trying to distract us, so let’s not allow ourselves to be distracted.

There are a few ways to influence the outcome. Anything uncovered about the candidates between now and the confirmation vote must be amplified. The critical task is to make the committee members hear our concerns about the candidates and the rushed vetting before they make their recommendations. We can call for more hearings or a delay in the their decisions, at the very least until the ethics reviews are completed. We will have less leverage after their recommendations are issued. Here is the hearing schedule:

Failing that, before the confirmation votes we can support Republicans who are willing to break with Trump and try to sway the minds of the broader Senate.

Going forward, we must hold the senators who helped rush the vetting process accountable for any scandals involving the appointees.

...Let’s keep the heat on…


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