Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer says President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet nominees “need a thorough vetting.” He’s right, but exactly what he and his colleagues mean by that won’t be clear until the Senate’s confirmation process begins this week. So here‘s a suggestion: Its hearings will best serve the public interest by striving to clarify, not politicize.
The constitutional requirement for the Senate is to provide the president its “advice and consent.” Individual senators will define that obligation differently, but some topics deserve more scrutiny than others.
Fitness for office, for example, isn‘t the main issue. Senators should of course give nominees the opportunity to relate their qualifications to the job they’ve been asked to do, and to elaborate on their plans to deal with any potential conflicts of interest. But even if the hearings were scrapped altogether, nominees would still be subject to thorough vetting -- a process so intrusive and burdensome, in fact, that it may deter many excellent people from serving. Simple disagreement on policy isn’t the issue, either, or shouldn’t be. The president is entitled to appoint people who agree with him.
What senators can and should do, though, is probe for more information about the details and purpose of the policies in question. Up to now, nominees such as Steve Mnuchin for Treasury secretary and Rex Tillerson for secretary of state haven‘t had to give the public an account of their views or of how they’d approach their jobs.
The presidential campaign’s vague, sweeping declarations need to be turned into policies. A demanding but constructive Senate can encourage Trump’s key officers to elaborate on their thinking -- and at the same time help voters understand what’s going on. Those are sound democratic purposes.