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Assessment of Nomination Fight Unbalanced

I’m a little concerned about my friend Norm Ornstein. I’ve known and admired him for many years and normally find his work interesting and thoughtful. But based on the column he wrote in Roll Call last week, “The Games Bush Plays With Good Nominees Are Counterproductive,” it seems he’s suffering from a severe case of political vertigo — losing his sense of balance while interpreting the White House/Senate nomination dance.

Ornstein’s too young to benefit from the Medicare prescription drug card, but he is in need of some “equilibrium” medication. He’s blaming the wrong ill for stalled nominations. So while it’s only a placebo, here’s a dose of perspective.

Appointments to bipartisan boards and commissions are a growing part of White House/Senate relations. The number of such positions has ballooned in the past half-century, providing both the president and the Senate ample opportunity to “play games,” to use Ornstein’s words, with the nomination and confirmation process.

Ornstein highlights the stalled nomination process experienced by several former Democratic staffers or political operatives, noting that their delay represents “payback for Democrats’ treatment of Bush judicial appointments.” He says President Bush’s actions are “way out of proportion and wholly unproductive.” Yet having worked in the White House Office of Legislative Affairs, helping shepherd myriad nominees through the Senate, I’ve seen another side of the story.

While under no obligation to do so, Bush has indeed offered Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) the ability to recommend Democratic candidates to serve on all bipartisan boards and commissions. And to date, the White House has approved more than 40 of the names submitted by the Minority Leader, a healthy number based on historical precedent. In many of the cases where a name was submitted and not nominated, it was because there was no vacancy; the person lacked the statutory qualifications for the position, or had clearance issues.

Ornstein argues that the White House subjects certain Democratic picks to lengthy delays before formal nomination. However, it’s also true, according to the White House, that Daschle has delayed submitting names for specific boards or commissions for more than a year, while putting holds on Republican nominations for the same boards or commissions.

Also, there may be a couple of high-profile cases where former Hill staff got wrapped up in political tit-for-tat, but they are the exceptions. If examined more closely, this blame game has many participants — including many Democratic Senators.

Moreover, unlike previous presidents who nominated individuals from the likes of political supporters from the other party (e.g., Democrats for Bush), this White House has never done so.

The bottom line, according to many on the Hill, is that the Democratic leader is treated pretty well based on the sheer numbers. “Daschle gets a lot of what he asks for,” a Senate Republican leadership aide told me. “They are doing some howling now just because he’s not getting everything.”

Ornstein also argues that a “long-standing tradition has given the basic responsibility for nominating candidates for seats reserved for the party not in the White House to that party’s Senate leader.”

But many I talked to on the Hill disagree, saying no such “long-standing tradition” exists. Ornstein uses the example of former Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) during the 1990s as his one case, arguing he was the “point man” for Republicans and President Bill Clinton “rarely” rejected his recommendations. But those I spoke to say the Lott situation was unique and Clinton by no means just rubber-stamped his picks. “Daschle is basing his demands on his perception of the Lott situation. Senator Lott had some type of informal arrangement with President Clinton, but it was not indicative of some long tradition in the Senate,” a Republican staffer told me. Far from established pattern, some say the informal Lott arrangement may have been unprecedented.

And while Ornstein argues rejections by the Clinton White House were “rare,” Lott was not treated as graciously as Ornstein thinks. Lott nominees were selected for 21 of the 50 slots for Republicans on bipartisan boards and commissions — less than 50 percent of the available positions and fewer than Daschle received from Bush.

Ornstein knows better than most that the growing nomination battle has many dimensions and characteristics of an escalating arms race. Both sides often take actions in response to a move by the other party. The number of positions has grown exponentially, while the partisan environment is dramatically more hostile. Tactically, Senators are applying parliamentary procedure in unprecedented ways, such as filibustering judicial nominations for the circuit court.

If he were looking for real examples of gamesmanship, Ornstein should take a look at the hundreds of names on the Senate Executive Calendar and explore the reasons why certain nominees have been bottled up for a year or more. Critical positions, among them key posts in the war on terror, are held up by bickering over a seat on the Truman Scholarship Commission.

I do agree with Ornstein’s conclusion that the current process is “sick” and needs much doctoring. If we don’t fix it, more and more qualified nominees will be discouraged from throwing their hats in the ring. But to lay all the blame on the White House’s doorstep clearly belies the facts.

So, Norm, take two of my equilibrium pills, get some rest and resume your normally good work in the morning.

Gary Andres is senior managing partner of the Dutko Group.