How Dr. Ronny Jackson got Nuked.

Mark Harkins | April 30, 2018

Now that erstwhile Secretary of Veterans Affairs nominee Dr. Ronny Jackson has lost his job as the President’s personal physician, he should blame former Sen. Harry Reid for his troubles.

On November 21, 2013, in the face of sustained Republican opposition to confirming President Obama’s nominees and judges, the Senate took the extraordinary step of changing its precedent to essentially eliminate the filibuster of executive branch nominees. Nicknamed the “nuclear option,” it changed Senate requirements to confirm nominees from a supermajority to a party line vote.

According to then Majority Leader Reid, filibusters against President Obama’s nominees forced his hand.  Fully half of the filibusters against executive branch nominees ever held in the 230 year history of the Republic came in the first 4.5 years of the Obama Administration.  One of the final injustices for Reid was a sitting Member of Congress, Rep. Mel Watt (NC-12), being denied a vote on the Senate floor for the first time since 1843.

How does this affect Dr. Jackson? All presidents, save one, have had to vet their nominees with an eye toward getting at least acquiescence, if not outright support, from Senators not of their party. All but President Trump. Because of the change in 2013, he is the only President who needed NO input from the minority party when putting together his first cabinet (other than President Carter, and that Democratic Party was really two parties).  Historically, the White House spent time looking into the backgrounds of potential cabinet officials knowing that Senators from the other party would not just vote to confirm based on a President’s word they were good people.  It is one of the legislative branch’s most important checks to the power of the executive and the only one where a minority of Senators could wield influence.

This power was not only used by the party opposing the President.  Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) routinely caused Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush to cater to his demands in order to have their nominees confirmed. But, in general, it was a power exercised judiciously by the minority party.

Regardless of how you feel about the change, switching from 60 to 51 votes has had a dramatic impact on congressional oversight of the executive.  As the Republican Party has stuck together to confirm many, but not all, of the President’s nominees, it has done so with little concern for the actual qualifications of some. Whether it has been a brain surgeon handling housing policy or a brain technology investor running education policy, it is clear that this President is putting people into the cabinet based on qualifications other than subject matter  expertise. And because Republican Senators have little incentive to review or critique the candidates in a way that might make their President look bad, he has been largely successful.

Except when he has not. My colleague, Matt Glassman, has a great take on how a historic number of President Trump’s picks have had to withdraw their nominations before even making it to a vote.  This is a new dynamic. In the past, the flaws in these nominees would have been found through the vetting process, and their names would never have even been made public.

Dr. Jackson has seen his reputation sullied to the point where he has been removed as the President’s personal physician.  None of this would have happened if thorough vetting and consultation with Senators on both sides of the aisle before a nomination was made public were still the norm.  And that norm would still be in place if the President needed Democratic votes for his nominees.  All of which should lead Dr. Jackson to say, “Thanks, Harry, for nuking me.”

Mark Harkins is a Senior Fellow at the Government Affairs Institute

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Categories: 115th Congress, Federal Workforce, Legislative Process, Revise & Extend, Senate, Updates