The Questionable Authority

As of this morning, the situation surrounding the Senate confirmations of John Holdren as head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy and Jane Lubchenco as NOAA Administrator is somewhat confused. A number of new news articles and blog posts have appeared over the last couple of days. Unfortunately, some of them seem to be presenting new information, while others are several days behind the current situation. In the interest of trying to inject a bit of clarity, I’m going to review the full chronology, not just the latest information.

20 December 2008: President-elect Obama names Holdren and Lubchenco as his nominees. The nominations were presumably not officially submitted until after the inauguration.

12 February 2009: The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation holds a joint confirmation hearing for the two nominees. The two nominees are later described as “sailing” through the hearing. The only down note during the hearing came when Louisiana Republican David Vitter questioned Holdren extensively about statements made by Holdren some time earlier that Vitter felt were alarmingly alarmist.

3 March 2009: The Washington Post reports that Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) is holding up the nominations in an effort to gain leverage on an unrelated issue. Several other news organizations picked up on the WaPo article and released similar reports during the day. Near the end of the business day, CQ Politics reported – based on an interview with Commerce Committee Chairman John Rockefeller – that there were in fact multiple senators blocking the nominations from proceeding.

4 March 2009: Talking Points Memo reports that they’ve confirmed the existence of multiple holds. I spoke with several Senate staffers, and received similar confirmation.

6 March 2009: Talking Points Memo and Climate Progress both report that Senator Menendez does not (as of that point in time) have any holds on any science nominees.

That’s the timeline. Here’s the current news:

Late yesterday afternoon, I was expecting to be able to report that the holds were placed by Louisiana Republican David Vitter. I’d made a number of calls during the day, and had heard that Vitter was the culprit. That belief was strengthened when Progressive Alaska’s Philip Munger posted an article based on his own reporting that fingered Vitter.

However, at about the same time an article went up on Talking Points Memo reporting that the source of the holds was unknown, but was not either Vitter or Florida Republican Mel Martinez. TPM based their claim regarding Vitter on a statement from Senator Vitter himself.

I am not normally inclined to blindly trust statements from elected officials, but in this particular case I think that Vitter’s denial should probably be taken at face value – a lie doesn’t seem to make sense here. If Vitter was the one blocking the nominees, the most likely reason would be ideological. In such a case, he’d have nothing to gain by lying about his involvement. Being known as the blocker wouldn’t substantially hurt him in any way, and it might help him secure support from some of those with similar views about the nominees.

I’m not entirely comfortable discounting either Philip’s sources or my own, but in this particular case I’m slightly less comfortable discounting Vitter’s direct denial. At least for the moment, I think it’s unlikely that the hold is Vitter’s.

As of now, it’s still unclear who is behind the holds. The most I can say is that the nominations still appear to be in limbo, and it’s uncertain when that will change.

Comments

  1. #1 Philip Munger
    March 10, 2009

    Thanks for posting a comprehensive timeline, Mike. There are lots of people at NOAA and dozens of other agencies hoping this gets over with, and soon.

    am not normally inclined to blindly trust statements from elected officials, but in this particular case I think that Vitter’s denial should probably be taken at face value – a lie doesn’t seem to make sense here.

    - Vitter’s wife might have something to say about that, eh…?

  2. #2 Mike Dunford
    March 10, 2009

    Vitter’s wife might have something to say about that, eh…?

    That’s definitely a fair point.

  3. #3 Coin
    March 10, 2009

    I think it’s worth noting TPM follows this up today with ruling out Inhofe and Barrasso.

    Isn’t the anonymity on secret holds supposed to expire after six days under the new rules? When is that deadline?

  4. #4 D. C. Sessions
    March 10, 2009

    What I don’t get is why anyone would want to be coy about this, with one exception.

    If it’s for “playing to the home crowd,” as you note with Vitter, the “holder” would be trumpeting it — there’s no point otherwise. If it’s for negotiating position, (as suspected of Menendez) then there’s again no negotiating leverage without coming out.

    The only possible explanation I can see also explains why these two: it’s purely a delaying tactic, for purposes of throwing a spanner into the works and holding off on the process of getting new management into place on the scientific front.

    That works as an explanation only if the “holder” is working for a high-stakes short-term objective, either ideological or constituent. “Constituent” either in the sense of a home-State supporter, enterprise, or campaign contributor; “ideological” in the sense of holding off the imagined Apocalypse.

    Is there a clock ticking somewhere? For instance, are some of the Bush appointees who “went deep” into Civil Service going to become harder to dislodge any time soon? Anything else going on in the science and environment direction that has a deadline in the next months?

  5. #5 Philip Munger
    March 10, 2009

    Late Tuesday afternoon:

    from Senator Begich’s office – definitely NOT Begich

    from another Senator’s office – Vitter

  6. #6 Toby Thaler
    March 11, 2009

    This is democracy? NOT.

    If Obama cannot get these two into office, and if the process cannot be made more open, what has changed?

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