"Welcome to the post-nuclear Senate," said a GOP aide after the confirmation of Jeh Johnson as Secretary of Homeland Security. Johnson's nomination was one of the first to be considered after Majority Leader Harry Reid used the so-called "nuclear option" to override the Senate's rules and end the use of filibusters on executive and judicial nominations. Now, nominees can be confirmed by a simple majority vote.
Winning passage wasn't a major issue for Johnson; he was confirmed 78 to 16. But because of Reid's move, Johnson could go into the process knowing he didn't need a single Republican vote to be confirmed. If Johnson could be confident that he had at least 51 of the Senate's 55 Democratic votes -- he actually had all of them -- he didn't need to pay attention to Republicans at all.
And so he didn't.
During his confirmation process, when minority Republican lawmakers made routine requests for information -- the kind of requests a nominee would have wanted to satisfy in the past, just to avoid trouble -- Johnson had no worries. On Nov. 15, several Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee -- Charles Grassley, Orrin Hatch, Jeff Sessions, John Cornyn, Mike Lee, and Ted Cruz -- sent Johnson a list of more than 50 questions, most of them about immigration, that had not been answered during Johnson's confirmation hearing. "We appreciate your pledge of 'transparency and candor with Congress,'" the senators wrote, "and look forward to your prompt response."
In a Dec. 12 letter, Johnson essentially blew them off. "I note that your letter contains about 57 specific questions including subparts," Johnson wrote. "Respectfully, given that I am a nominee and private citizen, and not part of DHS, I am unable to respond to your letter question-by-question, but can instead provide you with my more general views, as they exist at this stage." In several pages of mostly boilerplate responses, Johnson said things like, "I support common-sense immigration reform" and "If comprehensive immigration reform is enacted, and if I am confirmed, a priority for me will be the effective implementation of that reform."
It should be noted that some of the questions sent to Johnson were quite detailed. Perhaps he could not have given specific answers to all of them. But the senators immediately knew Johnson's offer of "general views" was a brush-off.
"On Friday we received a letter that can only be described as insufficient," Sessions said on the floor of the Senate Monday. "[Johnson] refused to answer, really, straightly, a single question, providing [only] his -- quote -- 'more general views as they exist at this stage.' Now, what kind of commitment is that? I'm going to give you some of my 'more general views as they exist at this stage'? Is that the kind of response the United States Congress should expect from a man about to head this agency? I'm sure it's the kind of response the White House staff told him to give."
Sessions does not believe the Johnson episode will be the last such treatment of minority lawmakers. To the Alabama Republican, it's an inevitable by-product of Reid's nuclear option gambit. "Now that President Obama, Majority Leader Reid, and the leftist interest groups have decided and successfully nullified the Senate's constitutional right of advice and consent," Sessions said, "why should any nominee be responsive to questions on any topic, let alone controversial ones like, 'Will you enforce the immigration laws of America?'"
There is much talk these days about how Republicans will take their revenge for Reid's action. GOP lawmakers have slowed down the Senate on a few days and will probably do so again. But that is a minor consequence of Reid's decision. If in the future Republicans win the White House and the Senate, Democrats can forget about having any of their concerns about nominees aired, beyond asking a few questions at confirmation hearings. If they want to delve into a particular issue, they can ask all the questions they want -- and expect nothing more than a stock expression of "general views."
From January 2003 until January 2007, when the GOP controlled the White House and Senate, Democrats did everything they could to slow or stop several of George W. Bush's nominees. They delayed, they filibustered, they piled on questions. They certainly thought their questions were legitimate. But now, with Reid's action, that's all in the past. Future Republican nominees will no doubt feel free to ignore Democratic concerns, just like Jeh Johnson ignored the GOP.