The Questionable Authority

UPDATE – 17:35 CDT: According to the New York Times, all holds are gone as of this afternoon, the Commerce Committee has unanimously approved the two nominees, and they’re expected to be confirmed by unanimous consent early next week.

But that’s because the holds are still going. And going. And going.

And there’s really nothing new to report. So, instead, I’m going to speculate. But business before pleasure:

Please, please, continue to apply pressure to your own Senators and to Majority Leader Harry Reid. I realize that this is getting really old by now. It’s probably starting to feel like tilting at windmills – but without that rewarding “crash” at the end. But our options remain limited. We can keep making calls and sending emails, or we can do nothing. Contacting Congress may not work, but doing nothing definitely won’t – and even if it doesn’t accomplish anything now, the more involved we stay, the better the chance that more members of Congress will start to get the message that there are advocates for good science policy.

And now the speculation:

Today, Elana Schor reports at Talking Points Memo that she’s been hearing rumors that the Senator responsible for the holds is Vitter, and that she’s been unable to get any response beyond the initial denial from the Senator himself. I’ve heard similar things, and so has Philip Munger of Progressive Alaska. I’ve been discounting those reports in favor of believing Vitter’s denial, but Elana’s most recent report does make me wonder if that’s a good idea.

If it is Vitter, there are a two things that are certain:

1. I owe Philip Munger a heck of an apology.

2. David Vitter is not the sharpest politician in the Senate.

The reason for #1 is pretty obvious. The reason for #2 is a bit more complex. (Actually, it could be argued that it’s an obvious fact based on Vitter’s history, but it’s not necessarily as clear how it follows from this particular series of events.)

Here’s my thinking, such as it is:

If Vitter is holding up the nominations, it’s most likely for ideological reasons, and not in an attempt to gain traction on any particular issue. (You may recall that the initial hold, placed by New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez, was an effort to gain leverage on an unrelated issue.) If Vitter was holding either or both nominees for ideological reasons, a denial doesn’t seem to be remotely smart. He’ll be holding up the nominees, irritating other Senators and possibly the White House, and nobody else would know. There are already quite a few people on the right wing blogs who share Vitter’s views on John Holdren. If he admitted it, he could reasonably expect to get quite a bit of support and attention from them, publicly, and for as long as the hold lasts. A denial doesn’t get him any of that.

I can’t see anything he’d gain beyond publicity and attention. He’s not going to be able to hold up the nominees indefinitely – if nothing else, they’d probably get recess appointments during the Easter break.

The same reasoning holds for other Senators who are opposed to any action on climate change. Denying involvement just doesn’t seem like it would get them the attention and approval that they could get if they admitted involvement.

So what does that leave?

Just to be clear, the following is pure speculation. It is not based on anything I’ve learned or heard from sources.

I think it’s at least possible that the hold could be coming from either or both of Maine’s Senators – Susan Collins or Olympia Snowe. Judd Gregg (R-NH) is also a possible suspect, as are the Democratic Senators from Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

If any (or some combination) of these folks is the source of the hold, the likely motive would be an effort to influence fisheries policy in New England. The National Maritime Fisheries Service is working on a new rule that would (if enacted) significantly restrict the fishing industry in the Northeast. The rule in question is highly controversial. During the confirmation hearing, Senator Snowe brought up the issue in one of her questions for Lubchenco, and Lubchenco’s answer seemed to diplomatically indicate that she was in favor of the new regulation. NMFS has said that they want to publish an interim rule by 1 April, in order to allow enough time to get everything in place before the fishing season starts on 1 May.

If this is the reason for the hold, the continued anonymity makes a lot more sense. The purpose of the hold would essentially be to keep Lubchenco on the sidelines during the rest of the decision making process. The nomination doesn’t need to be halted, just delayed, and that’s easily accomplishable under the circumstances. Publicizing the holds, at least in this case, would make little sense – it would create controversy and allow people to bring pressure to bear on the responsible Senator(s), which could interfere in the efforts to impact the single regulation.

If the hold is coming from either or both Snowe and Collins, that would also explain the relative silence from Harry Reid’s office on the subject. There is little to no reason for Reid to worry about irritating either Vitter or Inhofe – he’ll have 80+ votes on any measure well before either of those two crosses the aisle. Snowe and Collins are a very different matter. They were two of the three key votes on the stimulus; they’re going to be important to any number of other issues over the duration of the current Congress. Reid’s going to think long and hard before he does anything to irritate either.

Again, all that is speculation, and I am not trying to claim that any of it is necessarily correct. Frankly, I wouldn’t be all that surprised if the culprit did turn out to be Vitter. Right now, I’m betting on Vitter’s intelligence and rationality, and that’s not a horse that’s ever going to run at even odds.

Frankly, we may never know for sure. There’s technically a requirement that holds be published in the Senate calendar after six legislative days, but nobody has appeared behind these holds even though we’re on legislative day 8 since the publication of the Washington Post article that kicked the whole thing off. This is possible because a Senators don’t need to place overlapping holds, so in theory it might well be possible for one Senator to place a hold, then release it on day 5. If another Senator then places a hold, that buys at least another six legislative days – and possibly an indefinite number if the first Senator can go back and place a new hold on legislative day 10.

Menendez’s hold was probably released on Friday, which means that tomorrow is the earliest we could expect publication of a name. If no name appears in the Senate Calendar by Monday, it will be firm evidence that there are multiple Senators working on the holds.

For now, and until we learn something more concrete, we’re going to have to wait and see.

And keep bugging Senator Reid.

Comments

  1. #1 Philip Munger
    March 12, 2009

    I’m still holding on Vitter, possibly others. Snowe sort of makes sense, as an additional force if she has done this sort of thing in the past. I covered her concern about NMFS issues in the NE in another post at Progressive AK. I’m hoping that Lubchenco gets freed up in time to get up to Anchorage for the NPFAC Bering Sea Chinook salmon by-catch hearings, opening up the last work day of March. The most important revisit of this issue in a long time.

    If I am right – still believe I am – you don’t owe me anything more than the first beer when we next meet.

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