Congressional hearings have long been venues for representatives and senators to elicit information and gain knowledge of proposed and ongoing executive policy initiatives and program implementation efforts. Senators are typically interested in similar questions when the President nominates individuals for Cabinet or other posts and they hold hearings for that purpose and to try to understand how an individual is likely to behave if confirmed. To do so, Senators have not only to inquire into the nominees’ views on policy issues, but also gain a sense of their mettle, that is, how it is they come to make judgments and what thinking or philosophy undergirds their stance toward public decision-making. Senators seek to ascertain that the nominated individuals are solidly professionally and experientially prepared for the offices they will occupy and able to act prudently when making public choices once they have assumed their responsibilities.
If all of this is true concerning the functions of hearings, it is also equally the case that these events, whether for confirmation candidates or concerning policy proposals or implementation, provide senators and congresspersons irresistible opportunities to showboat, scapegoat and blamecast. Members and senators are legendary for their efforts to pin the blame for policies gone awry on executive decision-makers or others during hearings, even when responsibility for whatever went wrong rests squarely with their own choice making. Deflecting blame and finding someone to hold accountable is often relatively easy for lawmakers as it is difficult for executive officials to talk back too loudly since Congress controls their budget allocations. As for showboating, many congresspersons have made their reputations by vigorously questioning this or that official in a hearing or have used hearings to press a political or partisan claim to demonstrate to targeted supporters that they are “on their game” and looking out for their interests, or they have made statements aimed at scoring points against members of the other party. While all of these hearing-related roles can and often do mislead the broader public, they are by now well known and well worn as a way business is conducted in Washington. Members are typically aware of what their counterparts are seeking to do in political terms in any particular hearing, and indeed, irrespective of Party allegiance, may share their interest in deflecting responsibility for particularly difficult or “hot” issues when these are on the docket.
All of this said, nomination hearings have always been a bit different. While surely partisan and sometimes outrageous opportunities for grandstanding, Senators during such hearings, regardless of party, generally defer to the President regarding his preferred appointees, unless they discover something egregious in reviewing a nominee. That may all be changing now, and oddly, Senator John McCain (AZ-R), once known as an individual willing to work across the aisle and to foreswear shrill partisanship, appears to be a central figure in the shifting dynamic. In the present case, McCain, a Naval hero and stalwart defender of the Department of Defense budget and America’s military more generally, used last week’s Senate Armed Forces Committee hearing to “grill” (as his questioning was widely described in news outlets) his one-time Senate colleague (R-Nebraska) and friend, Chuck Hagel on whether he believed the troop surge in Iraq had been appropriate and successful. Hagel, President Obama’s nominee to become Defense Secretary to succeed the retiring Leon Panetta, had previously indicated he had doubts about the surge’s efficacy and McCain claimed outrage that the nominee might believe such claptrap and suggested strongly that this difference was, for him, an indicator of Hagel’s inability to make reasoned judgments and, therefore, of his fitness for the high post for which he had been nominated. While McCain has not said publicly that he would not vote for Hagel, his forceful and derogatory remarks raised a deeper question of when and why a simple difference in judgment on an issue can make an individual unfit for office, or can call into question their capacity for making reasoned judgments.
McCain’s stance on this matter is deeply unsettling, not least because he has himself expressed multiple positions on the surge, but also because it comes down to a claim that unless a nominee agrees with his or her questioner’s partisan or other strictures, he or she can be publicly labeled as temperamentally unfit for office. This is, to say the least, a dangerous position in a diverse democratic society of frequently divided governments and in a regime designed to require opponents to cooperate if any positive policymaking is to occur. Knowingly or not, a well-respected Senator and one-time presidential nominee has argued vigorously and with rancor that a member of his own party and a former lawmaker well known for his probity and understanding of defense issues, does not possess the requisite judgment to serve because he did not agree with his questioner on a policy question. McCain’s position that one must agree with his views to be able to exercise prudential judgment is simply indefensible and, should it become standard practice, will further mire our legislative process in all manner of partisan posturing with little or no relationship to anything of substance, while sowing still deeper bitterness and polarization. Ironically, In this case, that process would unfold at the potential expense of a member of McCain’s own political party. One may hope the Senator reconsiders his ill-conceived and imprudent attack and, unless he can offer a serious concern regarding Hagel’s judgment, votes affirmatively in coming days on the nomination of his experienced and well-qualified former colleague.