July 31, 2007

July 31, 2007 | Commentary on Federal Budget

President Conrad: A liberal solution to nomination gridlock.

Want to end gridlock in Washington? Just pack the administration with liberals.

That's the message from key senators who seem determined to oppose any Bush appointee who won't promise to toe the liberal line.

It's tough enough to get Senate approval of judges who aren't card-carrying members of the ACLU. Now, it seems, the Senate will balk at blessing the president's pick for budget director unless the nominee promises upfront to rubber stamp whatever spending spree liberal congressional leaders care to indulge in.

The hostage is Iowan Jim Nussle. A former House Budget Committee chairman, Nussle negotiated and passed six consecutive budget agreements while serving in the House. He is eminently well-qualified for the top budget post in the administration.

But qualifications take a back seat to politics in today's Congress. Nussle's sponsor, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) says the nomination may not fly because Democratic senators have beefs with Bush. The chief obstructionist is Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D., N.D.).

Conrad has butted heads with Nussle in the past. In previous terms as Senate Budget chairman, he twice refused to compromise with then House Budget Chairman Nussle, thus blocking House-Senate agreements on spending totals.

But Conrad's foot-dragging on the Nussle nomination is about future spending levels, not past budget battles. The chairman wants Bush to drop his opposition to liberal spending proposals as a precondition to getting Nussle confirmed to the budget slot.

This year's congressional budget proposes $23 billion more than Bush's budget for next year, and Bush has threatened to veto appropriations bills to enforce his lower number. Conrad wants to deal with a cooperative White House negotiator, not a tough one. 

Democrats who served with Nussle say he's fair as well as tough. That includes the new House Budget chairman, John Spratt (D., S.C.), who lauds him as "fair and honorable" and has volunteered to testify on Nussle's behalf before the Senate. Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa, also regards Nussle as a "straight shooter" who is "superbly qualified" for the job.

But opposing senators don't want words. They want a price to be paid for Nussle.

So what's a budget director worth? An extra $1 billion in spending? $5 billion? More?

It's too bad that we don't have a political eBay to help set a true market price. Then we could determine a fair asking price for all kinds of Senate confirmations - from Cabinet members to judges. A secretary of Defense surely would be worth at least a billion, whereas the secretary of the Interior might command little more than pocket change. The going rate might be $100 million for a district court judge and $500 million for an appellate judge. A Supreme Court justice? Priceless.

Imagine the outrage if Congress were selling political appointments - yet Conrad and other senators want the president to buy them off. Their message: "If you want a confirmation, grease my palms."

There's got to be a better way. Heaven knows we don't need a budget director who has to kowtow to Congress and rubber stamp whatever extravagant spending schemes our politicians can dream up.

If that becomes the price for confirmation, we might as well go whole hog and abolish the presidency, the White House, and the entire executive branch. At least we'd save some money on overhead, even as Congress ships out money by the truckload.

Even if Sen. Conrad relents, at least one other senator has issued an anonymous "hold" on approving the nomination, which is the Senate equivalent of hiding under Harry Potter's invisibility cloak.

Make no mistake: Nussle deserves confirmation now. But if liberals refuse to allow a vote on the nomination, Bush does have an option that will let him get Nussle without surrendering the keys to the federal treasury. Sen. Grassley predicts Bush will end up appointing Nussle to the job on an interim basis, without Senate confirmation. Nussle could then head the Office of Management and the Budget until Bush's term ends in 2009.

Of course, that would force Sen. Conrad to work with someone he tried to sabotage. And wouldn't it be sad to see a senator mistreated that way?

 Ernest Istook is a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation. He served 14 years as a U.S. Congressman from Oklahoma.

About the Author

Ernest Istook Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies

Related Issues: Federal Budget

First appeared in the National Review Online