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April 12, 2014 11:08 AM Burwell’s Confirmation Will Be a Boring Circus

By Martin Longman

I anticipated the Wall Street Journal’s response to the nomination of Sylvia Burwell to head the Department of Health & Human Services when I sarcastically remarked that Senate Republicans would “surely give her a fair and dignified hearing.”

The Journal sent a blast across Burwell’s bow this morning, urging the Republicans to use her confirmation hearing as an opportunity to “expose the [Affordable Care Act]’s continuing troubles and improve HHS transparency” and to demand the “release of the hard data and internal documents that would permit the independent corroboration and analysis that is especially relevant as insurers prepare plans and rates for the 2015 enrollment cycle.”

In other words, the GOP should make unreasonable document requests and then raise bloody hell when they don’t get everything they asked for.

The Journal acknowledges that the GOP doesn’t have the votes to block Burwell, who was confirmed 96-0 as OMB director a year ago, but they want a circus anyway.

The Senate has an obligation to scrutinize Ms. Burwell’s agenda and how she plans to govern the—ahem—28.5% of the federal budget that flows to health care. This is especially true for the vulnerable Democrats up for re-election who claim to favor a sheaf of ObamaCare “fixes.” If they mean it, they also should condition their votes on Ms. Burwell declaring herself on these proposals.
The Affordable Care Act invests HHS with vast new powers and employs the phrase “the Secretary shall” hundreds of times, even as Medicare regulations already bleed into all of American medicine. Republicans may lack the votes to defeat Ms. Burwell’s confirmation, but Kathleen Sebelius’s replacement should get a full-scale vetting before she assumes control.

They don’t have much in the way of talking points, however, at least that are specific to Ms. Burwell. They claim she is “an acolyte of former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and close to the White House’s Mr. Fix-it, John Podesta,” and that she has been part of the administration’s “insular policy-making.” That isn’t much to go with.

Her hearing will be held by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, which is chaired by the retiring Democrat, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa. A look at the Republican membership shows that the Journal may be in for something of a disappointment. The Republicans are led by Ranking Member Lamar Alexander, who is probably the closest thing to courteous the Republicans have in the Senate. Other mild-mannered senators like Mike Enzi of Wyoming, Richard Burr of North Carolina, Johnny Isakson of Georgia, and Tim Scott of South Carolina are not known for lighting up a room with their heated rhetoric. Moderates Mark Kirk of Illinois and Lisa Murkowski aren’t going to stir any wingnut hearts. And, while Orrin Hatch of Utah and Pat Roberts of Kansas can both be downright nasty when they want to be, they can’t come close to the fiery rhetoric of Ted Cruz. The best bet for fireworks is Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. He’s the only member of the committee who is likely to be a presidential candidate and he will want to make a mark.

Sens. Alexander and Roberts are up for reelection this year and have at least nominally competitive primary challengers. Sens. Scott and Enzi are facing the electorate, too, but seem to be free from serious in-party challenge.

One last thing to consider is this: just this week, 21 Republicans opposed Obama’s nominee for Vice President of the Export-Import Bank and 28 Republicans voted against Obama’s nominee to head the Bureau of Land Management. In the latter case, the vote was held before anyone knew or cared that the BLM had obtained a federal court order authorizing them to seize and auction off Cliven Bundys’ cattle, so there was no controversy at the time. In fact, Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada voted to confirm him. I mention this because a large bloc Republicans are willing to vote against nominees for no other reason than to pad their conservative voting ratings. And, of course, they don’t have to listen to negative feedback if they just say ‘no’ to everything.

So, there will be a circus, but I don’t think it will be a very captivating one.

Martin Longman is the Web Editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune. He has worked as a community organizer for ACORN/Project Vote and as a political consultant for Democracy for America.

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