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Confirmation Hearings as Kabuki Dance


I’ve watched the U.S. Senate exercise its constitutional duty to consider and vote on presidential nominees for major offices for more than 30 years, up close and personal. Over that time, I’ve come to the conclusion that the last thing a modern senator should do at any confirmation hearing is to ask the nominee questions. It’s not that inquiry is a poor way to understand issues or nominees; it’s that today’s senators don’t know how to ask questions–not even in those rare cases when they decide to do so.

Modern senators think they can adequately prepare for a hearing by instructing staffers to write a memo and some questions. The senators then read the memo at the hearing for the first time, and use the ten minutes they are given to ask as many staff written questions as they can cram in, or even just the ones they like. It makes for a hearing that is not just uninformative, but boring as well.

When I worked for Senator Jacob K. Javits (R­NY), who sat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he had two rules about preparing for hearings. One was unspoken: it was that he would work harder than any person on his staff. He would not just read but devour the long and boring memos we wrote, plus back up reading, plus materials we didn’t send him but that he found on his own, plus picking the brains of others on his staff–or of outside experts. The second rule was quite explicit: We should never let him ask a question we hadn’t already told him the answer to, and we damn well better have it right.

Javits was a bear to work for, but he was a lot worse for witnesses, especially nominees, appearing at the Senate Foreign relations Committee.

Sadly, Senator Javits is dead now; even more sadly, there is no one like him in today’s Senate; no sitting senator can hold a candle to the intellectual workload he imposed on himself, or to the seriousness with which he took the job of U.S. Senator.

To see how far we have fallen, watch the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on C-SPAN on Dec. 5 as the Committee considers Gates’s nomination as secretary of defense. Neither Javits nor his legacy will be present.

Are we doomed to a Grade B political Kabuki dance between nominee Gates and the various senators from both parties who will be more interested in scoring political points, providing non-substantive drama in the form of hotly posed–but thoroughly scripted–questions? (Click here for Part 1 of this series, showing how this rite works.) Or will there be some other form of non-inquiry?

In case some senators are interested in finding out what makes him tick and in understanding where he might take the Pentagon and the war in Iraq–if anywhere–here are some ideas about what to ask about and, more importantly, how to ask.

The latter is the simple part, senators: don’t plan to ask anything. Instead, prepare for a discussion, a back and forth between you and the witness, where you listen to what he says and respond with your own view and–much more importantly–your own information, such as, “Well Mr. Gates, that couldn’t be right because .” In short, plan to have an exchange–but not necessarily a friendly one – where the nominee does as much talking as you, and it is clear to him that you are his equal (at a minimum) on the subject matter you have chosen to address. If he senses you are on a fishing expedition hoping to get lucky and catch a big answer, he will know he can give you bilge water and you’ll fecklessly move on. (So, by the way, will many of the press and C-SPAN viewers.)

If he gets the message that you know at least as much as he does, he may do the unthinkable and cough up information before you embarrass him by doing it yourself. Then, you can get to the important part: what is he going to do about the problem you just made him acknowledge.

Here’s the hard part: you will have to do a lot of work to get ready. It will not consist of discussing the elections implications of the hearing with your political advisers the morning of the hearing, and you may have to reschedule that dinner with a heavy contributor the night before. You will need to select a subject matter you want to probe and then get into the weeds of the issue, Javits-like. Call your staff defense expert into your office to explain the thinking in the memo he or she gave you, which you read and re-read, marked up, and critiqued, and–of course–make the staffer answer all the clever questions recommended for you to ask. If the staffer flubs it, tell him or her to find someone who can, and do it now (Javits would). Then, ask for key materials to read (GAO, CRS, and CBO reports, key articles, and anything Gates has said about the issue), and actually read them. Any but a useless staffer will have all those materials – already marked up to make your reading more efficient.

Nothing will make you appear more knowledgeable than actually knowing what you are talking about. The contrast with others sitting up there on the dais facing the witness will be startling.

As to subject matter, beware any focus on how to “fix” the war. Gates is not going to talk to that with any substance. His handlers have drilled that into him; you’ll get nowhere. There is, however, much more on the nation’s defense agenda and about which you have every right to ask. Moreover, you should expect real answers from the man who is seeking your vote for the opportunity to fix the massive problems that await him in the Pentagon, none of them spelled I-r-a-q. Two of the most horrifying are the following:

The Defense Department is one of the worst managed agencies of the federal government, if not the worst.

The Pentagon can’t account for what happens to the half-trillion dollars Congress appropriates to it each year.

If Gates has some promising insights about what he will do to address these problems, he does indeed deserve to be secretary of defense.

WINSLOW T. WHEELER is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information and author of The Wastrels of Defense. Over 31 years, he worked for US Senators from both political parties and the Government Accountability Office on national security issues. He can be contacted at:

This commentary was prepared for the Nieman Watchdog.



Winslow T. Wheeler is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight.  He spent 31 years working for the Government Accountability Office and both Republican and Democratic Senators on national security issues.

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