A storm, Hurricane Isabel, postponed Gov. Mike Leavitt's first confirmation hearing in Washington last week. But in a twist of irony, Isabel actually imposed a lull of calm before what promises to be an even nastier political storm.
Much of the attention in Washington has been focused on judicial appointments. The Democrats succeeded in thwarting Miguel Estrada's nomination to a federal appeals court by imposing a never-ending filibuster. But the Democrats now seem prepared to extend this strategy to Leavitt's nomination as head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Already, leading party members have vowed to hold Utah's governor up as a whipping boy for the Bush administration's environmental policies. But last week, they were searching for something more tangible.
Leavitt has refused to submit answers to the written questions Democrats have sent to him. He is refusing under the advice of the White House. No EPA nominee has had to submit to such a thing in the past, and the White House doesn't want to establish a precedent.
This fight will get nasty, and you can rest assured it will have little to do with anything of substance. But whether or not Leavitt wins confirmation, the real losers will be the American public. Confirmation has become such a painful and difficult process that many qualified people with legitimate desires to serve their country will in the future decline the chance just to avoid the hassle.
It's already happening. Virginia Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, said recently on a CNBC program that half the people who are asked to take a federal judgeship say no. She thinks that number is only going to increase.
For years, some people have argued that members of the Senate have no business taking a person's ideology into account when deciding whether to confirm an appointment. After all, one can be fairly sure a Republican president is going to appoint people who are more favorable to Republican ideals and that Democratic presidents will do the same in regards to their party's philosophies. Presidential elections are all about ideology. The people decide who should be in power, and their choice as president ought to be given broad leeway to implement policies and make appointments. Only legitimate concerns about competence or improprieties should prevent confirmation.
Today, however, integrity and reputation have been pushed aside as factors of little relevance. Estrada received the highest possible rating from the American Bar Association. Leavitt is a highly respected governor who was chosen to head the National Governors Association. But never mind any of that.
As Virginia Thomas recently wrote in an op-ed piece published by the Wall Street Journal: "The U.S. Senate has a cadre of actors — some who act honorably and most who don't really care. But some people … care very much and want to use your nomination for their agenda, their power and their interests."
To some extent, these tactics have existed since the beginning of the republic. They have intensified gradually since Ronald Reagan's nominee to the Supreme Court, Robert Bork, was rejected on purely ideological grounds. But now the intensity seems to have picked up.
It has reached the ridiculous level where Nevada Sen. Harry Reid has announced he will block all of President Bush's non-military nominees until one of his own staffers is appointed to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Where will it end? Certainly, Republicans will return the favor some day when a Democrat is in the White House. The question everyone should consider is, is a carnival of public humiliation the best way to attract the best and brightest to public service?