Wednesday, June 15, 2005

The Bolton nomination and the Senate's place in the government

I posted this before, on the old filibuster for democracy blog, but with Bolton being in today's news, it seems reasonable to put it up here too.

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We over here at Filibuster for Democracy have, from the beginning, been concerned primarily with process. We have argued that the rules and modes of governance are more important than any particular substantive issue. Given this, it has been interesting to follow the fortunes of the Bolton nomination for ambassador to the UN.

The substantive questions are, to my mind, insignificant. Likely, John Bolton will not make an effective representative of US interests to the United Nations. His defenders say that his confrontational style will help him stand up to critics of the United States. That is a strange thing to say. Are we to imagine that another ambassador will be inclined not to stand up to critics? Would this alternative ambassador end up not acting in American interests? Of course not. The person who takes this job will need to persuade those critics to see things from the American perspective, will need to get them on the same page as the United States. Confrontation is clearly not the way to effect this goal; the chances are that it will rather further alienate critics of the US, making them even more intractable, harder to work with, and liable to obstruct American interests all the more.

So, no, John Bolton is not a good choice for UN Ambassador. But that hardly seems important. Who imagines that the position of ambassador to the UN will play a major part in the present Administration? Who imagines that critics of that administration would reevaluate their animosity toward it if the right person were chosen to work with them?

As a substantive issue, then, it seems to me that the Bolton nomination is not worth much bother.

So why are the Democrats effectively filibustering the Bolton vote? Process. The filibuster is designed to extend debate -- often, less floor debate than the behind-the-scenes negotiations that allow both parties to find common ground -- and to give that debate access to more information. The Senate has a constitutional obligation independently to evaluate the President's nominees and several other kinds of presidential decisions. To do that job at all, the Senate must have access to information -- both information that the President uses to make his decisions and information that will help them understand why the President made certain decisions. This is what the Senate is asking the White House for now.

Anyone concerned with process, with the way the government works, will have found herself uncomfortable with the secrecy of the White House. Some of the consequences of this secrecy have been profound. Whatever you think about the war in Iraq -- and I am sympathetic to some of the post-facto justifications -- it is certain that it was begun under false premises. It is certain that the Congress, to which the US Constitution explicitly gives the power to declare war, did not have the information it needed to play its constitutional role. The declaration of the war against Iraq collapsed the separation of powers, giving the executive branch a primacy that the framers of the Constitution would have shuddered to know of.

The Senate is seeking to set that balance right. They are asking the White House to provide information on Mr. Bolton's role in an intelligence dispute over Syria and the handling of intelligence reports from the National Security Agency. The way the White House used intelligence and hid its decision-making process behind assertions about classified data is precisely the trouble with how we began to send troops to Iraq. According to the New York Times, the White House spokesman says that the Senate has the information they need. This is patently untrue and, sadly, a predictable response from the White House. Senator McCain, in contrast, who is asking the White House to make available to Senators some of this information, says that the Senators "have some substance to their argument." The two Senators leading the call for more executive transparency, Sens. Dodd and Biden, convinced enough Senators to make a filibuster possible by arguing that this was about "standing up for the Senate and its prerogatives against incursions by the executive branch." This is the simple truth, and a much more important question than how bad an ambassador to the UN John Bolton will be.

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