Senate Republicans have scheduled nine confirmation hearings for this week, with five penciled in for Wednesday alone — the same day that Donald Trump will hold his first press conference since last summer.
The decision to front-load the confirmation process has raised the hackles of the (nonpartisan) Office of Government Ethics, which made its frustrations known in a letter to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer over the weekend.
“The announced hearing schedule for several nominees who have not completed the ethics review process is of great concern,” wrote OGE director Walter Shaub. “It has left some of the nominees with potentially unknown or unresolved ethics issues shortly before their scheduled hearings … 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.”
In truth, the Senate did hold confirmation hearings for Roderick Paige and Elaine Chao (who is now Trump’s pick for Transportation Secretary) in 2001 before the OGE had completed their reviews. But those instances were rare exceptions, according to Obama ethics counsel Norm Eisen.
What’s more, the importance — and difficulty — of assessing the potential ethical conflicts of Trump’s appointees is far greater than those of his predecessors: The president-elect has assembled the wealthiest cabinet in history, with some appointees holding billions of dollars in assets that are spread throughout the world.
As of this writing, four of the nine cabinet nominees who are set to receive confirmation hearings this week still haven’t completed their OGE ethics reviews — prospective Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Commerce Secretary pick Wilbur Ross, would-be Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, and nominee for head of the Department of Homeland Security John Kelly.
But Mitch McConnell is unmoved by the OGE’s plea for more time.
“All of these little procedural complaints are related to their frustration at having not only lost the White House, but having lost the Senate,” McConnell said on Face the Nation Sunday, ostensibly suggesting that the OGE is a front group for the Democratic Party. “I understand that. But we need to, sort of, grow up here and get past that.”
But if McConnell won’t listen to the OGE’s words, perhaps, he’ll take heed of his own. Or so Chuck Schumer seemed to reason on Monday.
“In 2009, then–Minority Leader McConnell sent then–Majority Leader Reid a letter laying out his list of pre-requisites for time agreements on the floor for President Obama’s nominees,” Schumer said from the Senate floor Monday. “They are almost exactly what Democrats have requested.”
In fact, McConnell’s 2009 demands are so close to Schumer’s 2016 ones, the Senate Minority Leader decided to send the Kentucky Senator his own letter, albeit with a few line edits.
In that letter, McConnell asked that committees be provided with each nominee’s OGE letter “in time for review and prior to a committee hearing.” The Kentucky senator described such a requirement as “consistent with the longstanding and best practices of committees, regardless of which political party is in the majority.”
If the Republicans do not honor those best practices in 2016, Schumer has threatened to drag out the confirmation process for weeks via procedural mischief. (Democrats do not have the power to filibuster cabinet nominees, but do, ostensibly, have a means of delaying the inevitable.)
As Politico notes, McConnell sent his 2009 letter weeks after the Senate confirmed seven top-level Obama nominees on his first day in office. Thus, in the Kentucky senator’s view, he is merely asking for Democrats to confirm Trump’s picks at the same pace that Republicans okayed Obama’s — on Monday, McConnell told reporters that he hopes to have more than a half-dozen nominees confirmed on the day Trump is sworn in.
But it remains the case that Obama’s nominees completed their ethics reviews before the Senate held hearings on their appointments. And, as of now, several of Trump’s nominees are poised to go into their hearings without having done so.