Sunday, January 4, 2009

Trouble in the Transition

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson has withdrawn his bid to be secretary of commerce in the Obama Administration. He cited an investigation of a company that has a consulting contract with the state as the reason for his action.

While Richardson denied any wrongdoing on the part of himself and his gubernatorial administration, he acknowledged that this development would complicate and delay the confirmation process.

New presidents face this sort of thing from time to time, for various reasons. I wrote here about the Senate's rejection of John Tower's nomination to be secretary of defense at the beginning of George H.W. Bush's presidency.

A couple of other examples that come to mind are Jimmy Carter's about-face on his nomination of Ted Sorensen to be director of central intelligence, and Bill Clinton's withdrawal of two nominations for attorney general, both because of the immigration status of nannies that the nominees had hired.

In the post-Watergate era, there has been increased scrutinty of candidates for top federal jobs. There has been much talk of avoiding even the appearance of impropriety. That might make a good sound bite, but it seems to me that it removes the presumption of innocence. In other words, I think it translates to deeming everyone who looks guilty to be guilty.

The Senate confirmation process is not a criminal trial. But, taking into account the potential impact on a nominee's reputation and career, I think it's appropriate to afford a nominee some degree of a presumption of innocence.

I'm still a Republican, despite my vote in the recent election, so I don't instinctively rush to the defense of a Democrat such as Richardson. And as to the question of whether he acted inappropriately, I fall back on the old saying, all I know is what I read in the papers (or more accurately, with Will Rogers long gone, on their websites). But I wonder whether we've lost perspective on the best way to handle this type of situation.

One effect of the heightened scrutinty of nominees has been that an incoming president cannot complete the process of filling subcabinet jobs until several months after his inauguration. I consider it to be arguably undemocratic, if the people have chosen a new president, but that president must wait for an extended period before his full team is in place to implement his policies. Here is a discussion of that issue from several years ago; I doubt that the situation can have improved in the meantime.

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