Confirmation votes for Health and Human Services nominee Tom Price and Treasury nominee Steve Mnuchin were delayed on Tuesday morning after Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee boycotted hearings, thus denying the committee the necessary quorum to proceed. It was a dramatic move by the minority party to try to stall the confirmations of both Cabinet appointments. And the chairman of the finance committee, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, was apoplectic over his colleagues’ behavior.
Here’s a choice selection of quotes from Hatch’s tirade against the Democrats: “I don’t remember us treating their nominees this way,” Hatch complained. “Assuming that they don’t support these two, then they can vote against them,” he said referring to Price and Mnuchin. The gentleman from Utah wasn’t done. “We’ll see if they will come and do the job that they’ve been elected and sworn to do,” he said. “I’m very disappointed in this type of crap. I mean, my God, there’s no excuse for it.”
The committee chair stood up for the honor of the nominees, saying that Democrats “really shouldn’t treat dignified people who are willing to sacrifice and serve in the government this way." Said Hatch: "This is the most pathetic thing I’ve seen in my whole time in the United States Senate.” To drive it all home, Hatch said of the boycotting members: “To not be here and participate — that’s a total abnegation of their duties as senators, and I think it’s pathetic.”
It was a pointed attack on an asymmetric obstruction strategy employed by an opposition party, and it leaned heavily on respect for governing and institutional norms. And it might have carried some righteousness and moral weight had it been delivered by anyone but Hatch.
Before we dig into Hatch’s unique unsuitability to complain about deviating from governing norms, let’s first look at why the Democrats are boycotting the hearings in the first place. They want to delay votes on Price and Mnuchin due to press reports that suggest both nominees may have given false information during their confirmation hearings.
The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Price received a privileged, discounted offer to buy the stock of a biomedical firm, which contradicts his sworn testimony before Congress. Mnuchin told Congress that his bank, OneWest, did not fraudulently expedite foreclosure proceedings through a practice known as "robo-signing," even though documents and court filings show that OneWest did, in fact, engage in that activity.
“We want the committee to regroup, get the information, have these two nominees come back in front of the committee, clarify what they lied about,” Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, told reporters. “I would hope they would apologize for that and then give us the information that we all need for our states.”
Now let’s get back to Orrin Hatch. You might recall that he was the leader of the Republican effort to block former president Barack Obama's appointment of a Supreme Court justice to replace the late Antonin Scalia. That act of obstruction lasted almost a full year — from Scalia’s death last February to Donald Trump’s inauguration earlier this month. Obama put forward a nominee — Merrick Garland — but Hatch and his Republican colleagues did not give him even the slightest consideration. Most of them refused to even meet with Garland, let alone hold a vote on his nomination.
None of the Republicans had any specific objection to Garland as a nominee. In fact, Hatch himself once said that there was “no question” Garland could be confirmed as a Supreme Court justice. What Republicans objected to was the very idea that Obama could nominate a justice during the final year of his presidential term. And the reasons Hatch put forward to justify this action were nothing more than lies and BS.
To get around the (correct) accusation that they were mounting an unprecedented blockade of a Supreme Court nomination, Hatch and his colleagues cited a precedent that didn’t actually exist. They invented a “tradition” of presidents' allowing their (undetermined) successors to make Supreme Court nominations. Hatch perplexingly insisted that Supreme Court nominations had to be “fair to both sides” and that such “fairness” could not be achieved in an election year.
The Utah Republican argued ridiculously that the 2016 election would serve as a sort of Supreme Court tiebreaker: Obama won re-election in 2012, but Republicans won a Senate majority in 2014; whoever scored two out of three electoral victories would get the nomination. At one point, Hatch wrote that he felt justified in blocking Garland’s nomination because protesters had disrupted his lunch meeting.
To cap it all off, Hatch even admitted that he would have been willing to consider Garland’s nomination during the lame-duck session, assuming a Democratic victory in the presidential election. This completely undermined every citation of principle and precedent he had made up to that point to justify his obstruction.
What Hatch and his colleagues did went far beyond some dilatory posturing by finance committee Democrats, and they had no justification for doing it beyond the cynical pursuit of power at all costs. Hatch led the Republican campaign to spend the better part of a year shredding governing norms in order to keep Obama's nominee off the Supreme Court, and he was successful in that endeavor. That success, however, means he can no longer appeal to the norms he worked so hard to obliterate when he objects to the tactics of his opponents. Hatch and his colleagues set the precedent. Now they get to live with it.