Who Are the ‘Obstructionists’ Again?

January 26, 2017

When Chuck Schumer, the Senate Democratic leader, complained that “this cabinet selection has been a disaster,” he was referring to President Trump’s choices. Mr. Schumer’s words, however, better describe how congressional Democrats have mishandled the confirmation process.

The minority party always hopes to notch a victory or two. But rather than concentrating their fire on a few of Mr. Trump’s more vulnerable picks, Democrats have gone after virtually every nominee. The result has been a clutter of messages that diluted the attacks and revealed the effort as nothing more than a massive political hit job.

Some overzealous Democrats damaged themselves in the process. One example is the salvo by Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.) against Sen. Jeff Sessions, nominated for attorney general. In 2015 Mr. Booker said that he was “blessed and honored to have partnered with Sen. Sessions” to sponsor the Congressional Gold Medal for the Selma civil-rights marchers. But now Mr. Booker has adopted a far different tone.

Mr. Sessions, formerly a U.S. attorney and Alabama attorney general, desegregated his state’s schools and successfully prosecuted a Klan leader for murder. No matter. In confirmation hearings this month Mr. Booker asserted that Mr. Sessions would refuse to “pursue justice for women,” defend gays and lesbians, or stand up for voting rights. Mr. Booker offered not a shred of evidence in support. This smear was an ugly way for him (unofficially) to begin his 2020 presidential campaign.

Then there was the circus in the Senate Finance Committee over Steven Mnuchin’s nomination for Treasury secretary. The usually thoughtful and mild-mannered Sen. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.) proved he makes a pathetic attack dog. To “assess your qualifications,” Mr. Wyden demanded that Mr. Mnuchin lay out specific steps for strengthening Medicare and fighting terrorist financing. When the nominee demurred, but promised to scrupulously follow the law and work with the committee on needed changes, Mr. Wyden feigned outrage.

Contrast this with Mr. Wyden’s treatment of President Obama’s last Treasury nominee, Jack Lew, during his 2013 confirmation hearing. The senator asked Mr. Lew if he agreed Congress should stop making piecemeal changes to the tax code. “I hadn’t actually thought about whether there was an approach like the one you described,” Mr. Lew responded. “I’d be happy to have discussion with you about it.” Mr. Wyden seemed satisfied.

Then the senator asked about an IRS determination on eligibility for ObamaCare tax credits. Mr. Lew sidestepped that, too, saying it was the IRS’s decision but he would be “delighted” to discuss legislative changes with Mr. Wyden. The senator replied, “I appreciate your saying that you’re going to work with me,” and then moved on. Sen. Wyden’s double standard is obvious.

Firebrand Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio) badgered Mr. Mnuchin over criticisms of his former bank by community groups, regulators and the office of the California attorney general. Mr. Brown read allegations and then asked Mr. Mnuchin to answer—“yes” or “no”—not whether the accusations were true, but whether they had been made.

Mr. Mnuchin, though rattled, took the sting out of the attack by taking time to put each statement in context. At one point, he undermined the hectoring: “These are complicated questions,” he said. “Let me at least explain them, otherwise there is no point of shooting them all at me.” Sen. Brown looked high and mighty.

Republicans didn’t obstruct Mr. Obama’s selections this way eight years ago. Seven cabinet members were approved the day he was sworn in, and four more within the first week. Most of these were approved on voice votes, often unanimous.

By comparison, Mr. Trump appears likely to have only four nominees approved by the end of his first week in office. The confirmation of one, Mike Pompeo to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, was delayed over this past weekend after Democrats broke an agreement for a Friday vote. Mr. Schumer blamed this on his inability to control his caucus.

Absent a major scandal or a nominee’s massive deficiency, a new president deserves to have his cabinet confirmed. Nothing disqualifying has surfaced about Mr. Trump’s picks. Yet Democrats, traumatized by their November losses, suffer from Trump Derangement Syndrome and are refusing to give deference to his choices. They are lashing out, an approach that is emotionally cathartic but politically stupid, since they are appearing to obstruct simply for obstruction’s sake.

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