The Clinton Confirmation Hearings

Yesterday I had the opportunity to listen in on Hillary Clinton’s confirmation hearings for Secretary of State which were broadcast on NPR. I found the proceedings generally unremarkable except in one particular. I was a bit surprised by the hostility that John Kerry, in particular, had for spreading democracy as a foreign policy objective. I’m skeptical of the practicality of the objective but that’s a somewhat different matter than hostility to the idea.

Still, if you don’t believe in spreading democracy as the keystone of the War on Terror, that leaves us essentially without a grand strategy.

The other thing that struck me about the hearing is that I wondered at how feeble the Senate was in the matter of cabinet appointments. I know that some hold that the president has plenary power to appoint his or her advisors. I find that idea astounding since the Constitution is pretty clear that the president appoints ambassadors, cabinet officers, etc. with the “advice and consent” of the Senate.

“Advice and consent” is a stock legal formula that usually pertains to weak executive systems. In such systems the executive is acting in the name of the legislature or other body that is actually enacting the laws. That would imply quite the opposite: that the Senate is actually doing the appointing.

However, I’m also aware that the first couple of presidents and their advisors pretty much thought that the Senate’s confirmation of appointments was optional.

Perhaps someone could fill me in on this. As things stand it certainly looks as though the Senate renders precious little advice and its consent is pretty pro forma.

1 comment… add one
  • PD Shaw Link

    What’s interesting about “advise and consent” is that it is the same standard as treaty ratification, which would be difficult to characterize as deferential in practice. One theory might be the Senate gets more involved in treaties (which become the law of the land) because they bear on legislative functions.

    Ultimately though I think the Constitution in its entirety contemplated a strong executive. Federalist No. 76 is Hamilton explaining the importance of accountability in the single person of the chief executive. He expects the President’s preferences for office to control, but that the Senate will check “unfit characters” and avoid substituting its own preferences. Hamilton points out that the Senate will be reluctant to reject a nominee for fear that the President would then select someone relatively less fit. A bit of game theory there.

    The argument becomes weaker with the judiciary. Once the President leaves office; he’s not accountable for the conduct of life-time appointees.

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