US allies left bewildered as key post unfilled

Sat, Feb 16, 2013, 00:00

AMERICA LETTER:The chaos paralysing the US Senate over the confirmation of President Obama’s nominee Chuck Hagel as defence secretary is an example of a level of powerlessness in the American capital and the latest manifestation of a US government being as close to ungovernable as it can be in the modern age.

Senate Republicans, who are in the minority, sought to use what the Democrats see as dirty tactics to not even allow Hagel’s confirmation to go to a vote. They chose instead to “filibuster” – delay by debating at length – the confirmation of a man to a crucial job, a role regarded by some as at the right-hand of the president, particularly when he is winding down wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Conservative Republicans such as Lindsey Graham from South Carolina argue there is nothing tactical at play; the party is simply trying to raise concerns about the president’s candidate.

Simple mathematics explains the ludicrousness of the situation – the Democrats have a 55 to 45 advantage in the Senate to confirm Hagel but they require 60 votes before they can even get to that vote.

The Democrats have managed to secure 59 votes (with help from four Republicans), so in theory Hagel is as good as confirmed but for the procedural roadblock set up by the remaining Republicans.

This is the first time in US politics the president’s nominee for the secretary of defence, a position previously seen as far too critical for party politics to get in the way, has been blocked.

“Even if the Senate reacted as negatively as possible to a nominee for defence secretary, it would at least allow a vote to occur – it wouldn’t stall the vote because that would leave the vital position without a permanent occupant and it would be so disrespectful of the president,” said Charles Tiefer, a law professor at the University of Baltimore.

‘Unconscionable’

The White House has described the delaying tactics as “unconscionable”, saying that it is difficult to explain to the country’s allies abroad what is happening in Washington.

The fact that Hagel, a two-time former senator from Nebraska and veteran of the Vietnam War, is a member of the Republican Party, someone who conservative Republicans would at other times have regarded as one of their own, points to the madness gripping Capitol Hill.

Hagel suffered the heaviest bombardment from members of his own party at last month’s confirmation hearing before the armed services committee vetting the president’s nominee for defence secretary.

This week, proceedings at the committee became even more fractious when Republican Ted Cruz, a 42-year-old from Texas and a darling of the conservative Tea Party faction who is in the Senate just two months, suggested a sum of $200,000 paid to Hagel could have come from North Korea.

His colleague James Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma, defended Cruz for implying Hagel was “cosy with terrorist-type countries”, saying Hagel was endorsed by the Iranians – “you can’t get any cosier than that.”

Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat, said Cruz had “gone over the line”, while fellow Republican John McCain intervened, saying Hagel was “an honourable man” and no one on the committee “should impugn his character or his integrity.”

Political bickering

This ugly episode of political bickering reflects poorly on a Congress whose approval ratings are already embarrassingly low and which is struggling to function.

A Democratic White House and Democratic Senate is at loggerheads with a Republican-controlled House and the nasty smears against Hagel are symptomatic of a deeply polarised political scene.

Were it just entertaining mudslinging the public might tolerate it, but bipartisanship has poured sand in the engine of government, stalling the machinery of law-making.

The last Congress, the 112th in the history of the US, which ran from January 3rd, 2011, to January 3rd, 2013, was the most unproductive Congress since 1948. About 220 public laws, the least by any Congress on record, were passed.

The next poorest was the 104th Congress during Bill Clinton’s first presidential term when – surprise, surprise – a new Republican majority in the House sought to disrupt a Democratic president before his re-election campaign.

That Congress still managed to pass 333 public laws, however.

Fiscal crisis

The fact the latest imminent fiscal crisis facing the administration – the so-called “sequester” of automatic $1.2 trillion of government spending cuts due to start kicking in next month – is the product of the 112th Congress and a can-kicking deal between the Democratic White House and congressional Republicans in 2011 to resolve an earlier fiscal crisis shows how pandemonium has engulfed US politics.

If the 112th Congress was bad, the unlucky 113th Congress doesn’t look like it is going to be any better.