In 2009, when Barack Obama took over as president, then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell set eight standards for congressional consideration of the new president’s cabinet nominees.
These are the standards that should apply to soon-to-be-President Donald Trump’s nominees as well. In case McConnell, and fellow Republicans in Congress, need a reminder, here they are, in McConnell’s own words from a Feb. 12, 2009, letter he wrote to then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid:
“[W]e expect the following standards will be met.
“1. The FBI background check is complete and submitted to the committee in time for review and prior to a hearing being noticed.
“2. The Office of Governmental Ethics letter is complete and submitted to the committee in time for view and prior to a committee hearing.
“3. Financial disclosure statements (and tax returns for applicable committees) are complete and submitted to the committee for view prior to a hearing being noticed.
“4. All committee questionnaires are complete and have been returned to the committee. A reasonable opportunity for follow-up questions has been offered committee members, and nominees have answered, with sufficient time for review prior to a committee vote.
“5. The nominee is willing to have committee staff interviews, where that has been the practice.
“6. The nominee has had a hearing.
“7. The nominee agrees to courtesy visits with members when requested.
“8. The nominee has committed to cooperate with the Ranking Member on requests for information and transparency.
“There will be additional requirements, honoring the traditions of the Senate, for judicial nominees. These common sense standards and long-standing practices will ensure that the Senate has the opportunity to fairly review a nominee’s record and to make an informed decision prior to a vote.”
These were the right standards as Obama took office, and they are the right standards now. That’s why Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer simply sent McConnell’s letter back to him Monday to make his point.
McConnell, a classic hypocrite, is wavering on the principles to which he was supposedly committed eight years ago. He called Democratic concerns that the process for confirming Trump’s nominees is being rushed “ little procedural complaints” and said Democrats need to get over the fact that they lost the election.
Ensuring that members of Trump’s cabinet, which will include more billionaires and political neophytes than any other presidential cabinet, pass an ethics review and disclose potential conflicts of interest is not “little.”
Last week, the Office of Governmental Ethics, an independent executive-branch agency, expressed concern that the nomination process was being hurried. “I am not aware of any occasion in the four decades since OGE was established when the Senate held a confirmation hearing before the nominee had completed the ethics review process,” the office’s director, Walter Shaub Jr., wrote in a letter to Democrats who had expressed concerns.
The rush, Shaub added, “has left some of the nominees with potentially unknown or unresolved ethics issues shortly before their scheduled hearings.”
Ethics lawyers for former President George W. Bush and President Obama have also raised alarm over the quick pace of hearings, which began Tuesday. Four are scheduled for Wednesday.
“Short-changing the ethics review process in Congress jeopardizes nominees’ ability to do their jobs if confirmed” Norman L. Eisen and Richard W. Painter, who served respectively as White House ethics lawyers for Obama and Bush, wrote in a column published by The Guardian. They recommend that hearings be postponed for any nominee with incomplete paperwork or with an ethics review that is not yet finished.
They note that Trump’s education nominee Betsy DeVos, a billionaire school choice activist, has invested in an online company that manages charter schools and that she and her husband have donated millions of dollars to candidates, political parties and committees. Yet, she has not submitted detailed financial forms to the ethics office. On Tuesday, her Senate confirmation hearing was postponed until next week.
Pretending to vet nominees without crucial information about their financial and personal connections and potential conflicts is dangerous. Senators should avoid this situation, as they did with DeVos, by demanding that McConnell’s eight standards be met.