Briefing Book

Vetting Is About Policy, Too

When Congress itself has to investigate nominees’ backgrounds, important policy debates get lost.

By Sharon Block

Tagged Briefing BookBureaucracyTrump AdministrationVetting

The vetting process for political appointees in the Obama Administration was no joke. In fact, I made the mistake of making a joke during my meeting with a vetting attorney while I was being considered for a nomination to the National Labor Relations Board. Asked if I had engaged in any behavior—public or private—that would embarrass the President, I said, ”I do not know the President well enough to know what kind of behavior would embarrass him,” my joke was met with stony silence. But that stony silence was indicative of how seriously the White House treated the vetting process. Every detail of a potential nominee’s life was probed and documented. Neither the nominee nor the White House would say a word publicly about a nomination until every aspect of the vetting process, including clearance of a conflict of interest check by the Office of Government Ethics (OGE), was complete.

Clearly, the Trump Administration has a different approach. As The Huffington Post noted in its coverage of the failed nomination of Andy Puzder to be labor secretary, “Trump transition officials told Puzder that the previous rules for vetting and strict ethics no longer applied.” That failure to take the vetting process seriously prior to announcing nominations is showing. In addition to Puzder, two other Trump nominees were found to have failed to pay taxes for household employees. Both the nominees for the Secretary of the Navy and Army have had to withdraw because of previously undisclosed conflicts of interests that OGE could not unwind. Secretary DeVos faced numerous questions about conflicts between her business interests and new responsibilities in the Administration. Top White House aides have already either quit or been escorted from the building because of ethical lapses that only came to light after they started on the job. In recent days, the Trump Administration has been rocked by questions about what—if anything—they sought to uncover or did uncover during the vetting process about Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s contacts with the Russian ambassador prior to the election.

This seeming unconcern for the vetting process says much about this Administration’s moral and ethical underpinnings and the hypocrisy of then-candidate Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp.” It also raises significant questions about how seriously they take the policy process and the confidence they have in the policies they plan to pursue. Yes, in the Obama Administration, we took the vetting process seriously because it is the right thing to do and essential to the notion of public trust. But it was also essential, however, to our commitment to having a robust policy conversation with the American people.

As Ben Penn noted in Bloomberg’s Daily Labor Report article on the Puzder hearing, the ethical cloud hanging over that nominee threatened to greatly overshadow the discussion of his policy positions on the myriad issues that would have faced him at the Department of Labor. A similar dynamic actually played out in other cabinet nominees’ hearings—if Senators did not need to figure out whether Tom Price had introduced legislation that benefited firms in which he had investments, they could have spent more of the limited time allotted for his hearing on actual health policy issues. The lack of rigorous vetting suggests that the Trump Administration would rather have their nominees talking about themselves, their personal lives, and their financial dealings than the policy agenda they will be implementing. Maybe that’s because they are afraid of how Americans would react if they understood what policies were in store for them.

We welcomed a robust policy debate. We had no interest in trying to hide where our nominees stood on the issues. Therefore, we tried to remove any obstacles to having those debates—no conflict of interest sideshows, no headlines coming out of a confirmation hearing about the nominee’s personal life, and no delays in filling positions because of ethical lapses that could have been discovered prior to nominations. When you are proud of your vision for the country, you nominate good people to articulate and defend that vision. I am afraid the American people are going to be surprised by the vision of our country espoused by many of the Trump Administration officials once the ethical dust clears and that vision comes in to focus. By then of course, it will be too late for the public to weigh in on those nominees—but maybe that was the point all along.

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Sharon Block is the Executive Director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School. She formerly served as Senior Counselor to Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for Policy, and Member of the National Labor Relations Board. The view expressed here are hers and not those of the Labor and Worklife Program or Harvard Law School.

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