The most powerful Cabinet ever faces the least serious hearings ever
That's an obvious problem
Showing their boundless capacity for procedural creativity, Republicans have scheduled no fewer than nine confirmation hearings for Cabinet secretaries over the course of three days this week. Wednesday is also supposed to feature the first press conference Donald Trump has held since July, which if it happens — I'll believe that Trump will submit to probing questions when I see it — will of course dominate the news cycle, leaving any substantive questions Democrats have for the nominees to the inside pages.
Just as this president is the one whose tax returns we most desperately need to see, these Cabinet appointments are the ones whose backgrounds, beliefs, and conflicts of interests most require detailed examination. Many of them have never served in government before and/or have vast fortunes that could be affected by their decisions in office. They and other appointments seem to have been chosen because they're rich, or because Trump had seen them on TV, or, in one case, because the nominee had a cool nickname. Perhaps most importantly, they'll be serving a president who is a proud ignoramus about the operations of government, and therefore has virtually no idea what they ought to be doing and will probably have no idea what they're actually doing. That could give them unusual power in the Trump administration.
Yet the line from Republicans is a version of what we keep hearing from Trump representatives on a whole range of issues: Don't worry, don't ask too many questions, everything is fine, just trust us. Mitch McConnell, who in 2009 wrote a stern letter to Harry Reid demanding that the background checks and financial disclosures for all nominees be completed before any confirmation hearings begin, now says that anyone who's worried about the pace of these hearings needs to "grow up." Let's just say it's no accident that a biography of McConnell is titled The Cynic.
So the head of the Office of Government Ethics has complained that his office hasn't been able to complete reviews of the nominees yet, and "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." Ethics, disclosure — that kind of stuff is obviously for people who don't care enough about Making America Great Again.
But let's be honest: Barring some truly shocking revelations, all Trump's picks are going to get confirmed. In order for any of them to be defeated, a couple of Republicans would have to vote against them, and that's somewhere between unlikely and impossible. And this Team of Billionaires is ready to hit the ground running, enacting a deregulatory, tax-cutting, pro-corporate agenda that will warm the heart of any white-shoed Republican who might have been unsettled by all that populist talk during the campaign. The Democrats will ask the toughest questions they can come up with — at least in whatever hearings they can make as they run back and forth to try to get to those happening simultaneously — and the nominees will say, "That's a good question, senator, and I look forward to working with you on that."
That's not to mention that some of Trump's most controversial appointments won't be subject to Senate confirmation, like Michael Flynn, his conspiracy theory-loving selection for national security adviser, or his pick of his own son-in-law Jared Kushner to be "senior adviser," seemingly in violation of anti-nepotism laws, or his choice of Carl Icahn to be regulatory czar, in a position where he will be able to shape regulations to the benefit of his own enormous investments.
But it's not even their own conflicts of interest, ample though they are, that should be the cause for most concern. This could end up being the most powerful Cabinet in memory, simply because the president they'll serve will probably be so disconnected. Trump not only knows virtually nothing about government to begin with, he shows no inclination to learn. And because he lacks any clear ideological foundation that people within his administration can use as guidance for what sorts of policies he'd like to see, the Cabinet could have an unusual degree of latitude to shape policy without much oversight from the Oval Office. Does anyone think Trump is going to pay a lot of attention to what goes on at the Department of Health and Human Services, or Agriculture, or Labor? They'll tell him that everything's going great, toss a few compliments at his feet, and depart with his blessing to continue doing what they're doing, whatever that is.
That means that these Cabinet secretaries could wield unusual power. So it's all the more vital to understand, and get them on record, about what they've done in the past and their plans for the next four years. It doesn't seem like all that much to ask.