Blogs > Cliopatria > Why Are So Many of Obama's Cabinet Picks Facing Republican "No" Votes?

Apr 24, 2009 12:42 am


Why Are So Many of Obama's Cabinet Picks Facing Republican "No" Votes?



The Senate Finance Committee recently reported the nomination of Kathleen Sebelius to be HHS secretary by a 15-8 vote; just two committee Republicans voted for the Kansas governor. While Sebelius is certain to be confirmed, it seems likely that somewhere between 20 and 30 Senate Republicans will vote against her.

Sebelius is the fifth Obama cabinet nominee to encounter significant opposition. One (Tom Daschle) withdrew. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner had 34 senators vote against him; Eric Holder had 21; and Hilda Solis had 17. Two other nominees (Hillary Clinton and Ron Kirk) had roll-call votes, with 2 and 5 negative votes.

With the exception of Geithner, senatorial opposition to Obama cabinet nominees has tended to focus on a distaste with the policies that the nominee would carry out under Obama--Holder on torture, Sebelius on health care and abortion rights, Solis on card check. This is a break from past administrations, and it's a potentially troubling development.

In 2001, just two Bush nominees even faced any opposition in roll-call confirmation votes: 42 senators opposed John Ashcroft, while 24 opposed Gale Norton. In both instances, opposition centered on the nominee's previous positions (Ashcroft's record on desegregation matters, Norton's affiliation with James Watt and the Sagebrush Rebellion) rather than a de facto commitment to vote against anyone the President happened to nominate for a particular cabinet slot.

Going back eight years to Bill Clinton's first cabinet, in a Senate with roughly the same number of Republicans (44) as today, no nominee faced dissenting votes--although, of course, Clinton's first choice as AG, Zoe Baird, had to withdraw for personal reasons.

Ronald Reagan's first batch of nominees didn't enjoy this type of unanimous backing--but they hardly faced strong opposition, either. The greatest resistance came to Labor Secretary William Donovan, against whom conflict of interest allegations had been raised. Donovan was confirmed 80-17.

What's going on here? One explanation, of course, is that Obama has simply chosen less qualified nominees than his predecessors, and the Senate has rightly insisted on imposing its checks and balanced. That doesn't seem like a credible explanation.

Instead, the growing partisan resistance to qualified cabinet nominees as a way of expressing distaste with the President's policies seems to be part of a broader trend in what congressional scholar Norm Ornstein has termed"our broken senate." As Ornstein documents, the current GOP minority has also dramatically increased the frequency of filibusters, transforming the Senate into a body requiring 60 votes on virtually any legislation--a sharp contrast to the situation even two decades ago.

While the Republicans have shown more aggressiveness on such procedural matters, it's hard to believe that the Democrats, if they return to the minority, will not employ the GOP's precedents. The result, sadly, will be an increasingly dysfunctional Senate.

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R.R. Hamilton - 5/7/2009

Thanks, Mr. Luker, for pointing out that I did not know that "brie" is a type of cheese and thereby validating my working class credentials more than I could do myself.

Now, if you could tell me what "foie gras" is, I'll send you my mother's recipe for fried baloney sandwiches. :)


Ralph E. Luker - 5/3/2009

Saying "brie and cheese" is the equivalent of saying "Mercedes and automobiles" -- yet, JJ still lectures KC for not making sufficiently conservative distinctions!


R.R. Hamilton - 5/3/2009

... could this be written.

Let me use a peacock blue editor's pencil to help KC Johnson understand the view from the hinterlands:

"[Tax cheat] Sebelius is the fifth Obama cabinet nominee to encounter significant opposition. One ([tax cheat]Tom Daschle) withdrew. Treasury Secretary [and tax cheat] Tim Geithner had 34 senators vote against him; Eric Holder[, who acted at the personal lawyer for criminal fugitive Marc Rich while being paid by the American taxpayers,] had 21; and [tax cheat] Hilda Solis had 17."

"In 2001, just two Bush nominees even faced any opposition in roll-call confirmation votes: 42 senators opposed [the most over-qualified AG nominee ever(1)] John Ashcroft, while 24 opposed Gale Norton. In both instances, opposition centered on the nominee's previous positions (Ashcroft's record on desegregation matters, Norton's affiliation with James Watt and the Sagebrush Rebellion). [While acting as the elected AG of Missouri, Ashcroft's 'record on desegregation' -- specifically opposing wacked-out, judge-ordered 'desegregation' plans that have since been abandoned as the disgrace he had the foresight to foresee -- was resoundingly popular with the voters who paid his salary. James Watt never did anything worse than make a light-hearted and sarcastic comment about kowtowing to political correctness for the sake of 'diversity'. (Sounds like someone else I know.) The Democrats who condemned Norton for her 'affiliation' with Watt -- they may have passed each other in a hallway! -- are the same ones who told us that a person's formal alliances with unrepentant Communist terrorists and crazed, race-hating ministers were not to be considered when choosing the leader of the free world.]"

"Going back eight years to Bill Clinton's first cabinet, in a Senate with roughly the same number of Republicans (44) as today, no nominee faced dissenting votes. [Perhaps as a result, several Clinton high-ranking officials, including his HUD secretary and Agriculture secretary, resigned in disgrace following scandals that they abused their offices for personal gain. This in start contrast to G.W. Bush's administration which was remarkably free of such scandals.]"

"What's going on here? One explanation, of course, is that Obama has simply chosen less qualified nominees than his predecessors, and the Senate has rightly insisted on imposing its checks and balanced. That doesn't seem like a credible explanation. [More likely is that Obama has nominated a series of, shall we say, ethically-questionable people, and after eight long years of slimy scandals in the last administration, the Republicans' scoundrel-detectors are more refined
this time around.]"




(1) I challenge you to name one with better professional credentials -- without regard to policies that upset the clucking classes over their brie and cheese.


Robert Lee Gaston - 4/28/2009

forgive the junk at the bottom.


Robert Lee Gaston - 4/28/2009

So, he was sober enough to Chair the Senate Armed Forces Committe, represent the United States at the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks in Geneva, chair a review board to study the actions of the National Security Council and its staff during the Iran-Contra affair (Tower Commission), and to head the Foreign Intellignece Advisory Board. What Tower did wrong was leave the Democratic party. That, Byrd and Mitchell would not forgive. Like I said Its a tough game.

However, he was the first rejected in 33 years and it kind of set the tone for what has continued since.

He resigned in April, 1986, to continue his career as chairman of Tower, Eggers, and Greene Consulting, a company based in Dallas and Washington. In November 1986, Reagan persuaded Tower to chair the President's Special Review Board to study the actions of the National Security Council and its staff during the Iran-Contra affair.


and not sober enough to be sec def? When Jimmy carter left office we had ships tied up


Glenn Rodden - 4/28/2009

Your story about the rejection of John Tower as Defense Secretary is incomplete at best. Tower was not confirmed because he drank too much and because he had close ties to the defense industry.


Robert Lee Gaston - 4/27/2009

As usual, Democrats start a political practice and whine when it is used against them. The current round of partisan fights over presidential nominees started during the George HW Bush presidency. There some Republican Senators still around who remember Robert Bork and John Tower. (The latter having served as the U.S. rep to the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks in Geneva was deemed unqualified to be Sec Def.) I have a feeling their attitude may be: “you, the Democrats, set up the game and set the rules, so okay let’s play”.
As to Zoe Baird; she hired illegal aliens to serve as household servants (chauffeur and nanny). She also failed to pay their social security taxes. She ended up paying around $3000 in fines. Let’s see a Republican AG wannabe slip that past the New York Times.
Some of the current crew is having some trouble paying their taxes. We, the common folk would probably be talking to a U.S. Attorney about tax evasion if we had pulled what Tim Geithner tried to pull off while at the World Bank.
By any objective measure Tom Daschle should have been charged with tax evasion.
The Sebelius case is more political. Republican senators want her to be in office as governor, and to be forced to veto or let stand an anti-late term abortion bill before she is confirmed. Its tough politics, but then politics is tough.
All in all I doubt that any Republican who has tax problems could be confirmed in the Senate. I dare say that a number of President Obama’s political nominees would have a difficult time if they were being confirmed to serve a Republican president.


Michael Green - 4/27/2009

When one considers the number of federal judicial appointees the Republican Senate blocked during the Clinton administration, and compares it with the behavior of Democrats during the Bush administration, I do not share Professor Johnson's suspicion that Democrats will be as hateful toward the next Republican president as Senate Republicans are toward Barack Obama. And more's the pity because their lack of backbone and filibustering has saddled the country with some horrible policies and incompetent people. Stopping those things is not being obstructive. It is being patriotic.


Jim Good - 4/27/2009

Torture is the hallmark of a "banana republic."


William Hopwood - 4/23/2009

"...there's nothing sad about these votes per se. They're normal. If these votes connote deepening personal hostilities across the aisle, that's another, and I agree troubling, issue."

Yes, and it seems clear that these votes might be expected as a normally sharp reaction to the many abrupt ideological changes in the government's course and speed. However, in view of the president's demeanor on recent trips abroad, the lack of good judgement in the release of the "terror memos," and hints of banana republic style "show trials" of previos administration officials to come, we may have seen only the tip of the political iceburg.

It may be too early to judge but so far the new administration has yet to show that it's ready for prime time.


Jeff Vanke - 4/23/2009

In any West European parliamentary democracy (or constitutional monarchy), the amazing part of this would be how many opposition lawmakers voted *for* the government's nominees.

I disagree, K.C.; there's nothing sad about these votes per se. They're normal. If these votes connote deepening personal hostilities across the aisle, that's another, and I agree troubling, issue.

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