Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Treasury Department finally has an Undersecretary for International Affairs. Lael Brainard, was confirmed yesterday by the full Senate by an overwhelming majority after a wait of more than a year.

Let's take this step-by-step. Brainard was nominated on March 24, 2009. Her nomination was held up by Senate Republicans because of problems with her tax returns, specifically a problem with her "home-office tax deduction." However, Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona was also worried about the expansion of internet gambling. On April 19, 2010 (two days ago), the Senate voted 84-10 for cloture on Brainard's nomination. The next day (yesterday), the Senate voted 78-19 to confirm Brainard.

This is a problem.

I understand that in the US political system, the US Senate's role is to "advice and consent" to the President's nomination. I understand that the minority party must exercise its power in creative ways to foil the efforts of the majority party. I also understand that you have limited options when the opposing party holds the presidency and large majorities in the House and Senate.

But really?

Brainard is nothing if not qualified. Her resume includes Deputy National Economic Advisor for President Bill Clinton; Vice President and Founding Director of the Brookings Institution's Global Economy and Development Program; Associate Professor of Applied Economics at MIT Sloan School; a White House Fellow; and a National Science Foundation Fellow. She isn't crazy, or a criminal. For the record, her husband, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, was confirmed in June 2009, so the tax issues were not the reason. And finally, when you're confirmed by 78-19, there clearly wasn't that much worry over your nomination.

The confirmation process is broken, if not (hyperbole coming!) horribly, irreversibly, and ridiculously broken. The Senate is entitled to its role in the foreign policy process, but what does it accomplish to deprive the Treasury Department of a point-person on international affairs during the greatest financial meltdown since the Great Depression? It knee-caps the department and makes it less able to function. That is the point of Senate Republicans' efforts.

Lots of people have put a lot of thought into reforming the process and streamlining presidential appointments. But the bottom line is that in a system built on checks and balances between the "political branches of government," politics trumps. I know Democrats engage in obstructionism while in the minority, and that is the way it works. But blocking a nominee for 13 months because of an unrelated policy difference (by no more than 20% of the Senate) is over the line, and should be called out as such.

UPDATE: I should add that this applies to appointees who serve in presidential administrations, NOT to nominees for the Supreme Court. The serve for life, unlike most nominees who serve for the duration of an administration.

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