The confirmation hearings begin

by Michael Sean Winters

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The U.S. Senate begins confirmation hearings today for president-elect Donald Trump's nominations to his cabinet. This will be the first chance to assess how the Democrats will fight back against the incoming administration. And, for Catholics, a couple of the nominees raise specific concerns.

The first confirmation hearing will be for Attorney General-designate Sen. Jeff Sessions. His is also likely to be one of the most contentious hearings. An attorney general plays a critical role in both civil rights enforcement and immigration policy and in both instances Sessions is a reactionary. He did not help his cause when he overstated his involvement in previous civil rights cases when he was the U.S. attorney in Alabama. Three lawyers who actually did prosecute the civil rights cases Sessions claimed as his own said he played virtually no role in them. Some past statements are questionable to say the least: When he was denied confirmation as a federal judge thirty years ago, it was because of allegedly racist remarks he made, as well as the fact that he called the ACLU and the NAACP "un-American."

Of special concern to Catholic is his dismal track record on immigration, supporting Trump's call for a border wall and advocating restrictions on legal immigration and more draconian responses to illegal immigration. At Religion News Service, John Gehring demolished Sessions' exegesis of the Holy Bible to justify his opposition to immigration, recommending the senator to attend, instead of teach, a Sunday school case. A little more than two years ago, the Senate passed a bipartisan comprehensive immigration bill. Not anymore. Trump owns the party and they appear ready to fall into line behind his anti-immigration stance. No GOP senator will oppose Sessions because of his similar views.

On Wednesday, Betsy DeVos will begin her confirmation hearing to become the next secretary of education. Many Catholics were pleased with the selection because DeVos is an advocate of school choice and is likely to support vouchers for families who wish to send their children to Catholic, and other private, schools. I support vouchers too, but my reasons are far different from those of Ms. DeVos. She is a libertarian in the tradition of Murray Rothbard who famously argued that there should be no public education. She served on the board of the Acton Institute from 1995 thru 2005, with all that implies. Regular readers know what I think of Acton: It attempts to baptize the un-baptizable, making an idol of laissez-faire economics and, just so, a mockery of their claim to be loyal to Catholic social teaching.

The worry about DeVos is twofold. First, surely with Pope Francis' frequent, and powerful, reiterations of the Catholic church's support for organized labor, it would be better if bishops reached out to unions and tried to lower the temperature around the issue of vouchers for Catholic schools, maybe look for ways for Catholic and public schools to collaborate on summer arts programs and the like, and enter into debate about vouchers with an acknowledgement of the good faith concerns of both sides. I do not anticipate anything DeVos does will make a more workable long-term solution likely. I suspect she will poison that well thoroughly.

Secondly, there are few things as immoral as the right thing done for the wrong reason. Most Catholic children attend public schools, a fact that is not likely to change anytime soon. Bishops and other Catholic leaders should be concerned about making public schools a success too. It is a tall order and I will grant that the teachers' unions are not always helpful. But, an argument based on "choice" should alert Catholics who are worried about the consumer mentality of the culture, and how that mentality leads to other pernicious results, before embracing DeVos' advocacy for "school choice."

Catholics in the U.S. may not have any specific concerns about Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson, but Ukrainian Catholics have good reason to be terrified. All of us should be worried about the plutocracy taking shape in the White House Cabinet room: That concern is not unique to Catholics though it may be more obvious to Catholics in the Age of Francis why empowering the powerful is not exactly the surest path to justice. Certainly, Tillerson will repeat many times that he had a fiduciary obligation to shareholders to make nice with Vladimir Putin, all in the interest of increasing the monetary value of those shares. I hope someone on the committee reminds Mr. Tillerson, and the rest of us, that shareholders are not the only people to whom a CEO has a responsibility. You do not cease to be a member of the human race when you obtain a corner office.

The Democrats are unable to stop any of these nominations from going forward unless some Republicans join them. They changed the rules so that the minority cannot filibuster a Cabinet selection. The current Minority Leader, Sen. Chuck Schumer, thinks it was a mistake to have changed the rules, but I do not agree: A president should largely have the right to select his own team for his Cabinet. (Supreme Court nominations are a different thing.) But, the hearings give the Democrats the opportunity to flesh out precisely who these Cabinet choices are for the American people. The fact that they are all either generals or people of enormous wealth should not surprise: Mr. Trump has promised results, and has nominated people who have achieved results, albeit not in government. But, I wonder how responsive these nominees will be to the American people? I wonder if they can speak with even a hint of empathy? Democrats should look for an opportunity to point out just how differently the other half, better to say, the other half of one percent, live.

Related: "Dr. Ben Carson to HUD" (Dec. 6, 2016)

Should the Democrats, mindful that they cannot actually stop the nominations, save their ammunition until there is a more substantial fight, like the forthcoming battle over Obamacare or a Supreme Court nominee? No. Democrats need to take a page from the GOP and never miss an opportunity to tag Trump and his team as the plutocrats they are. In the case of Dr. Ben Carson, nominated to be secretary of housing and urban development, it might be useful to afford him the opportunity to demonstrate how precious little he knows about the agency he is set to lead and its work. No one should escape these hearings without some bruises.

Will it matter? I am not sure most American could name, say, the current secretary of defense or of the treasury. But, these nominees are part of Trump's team, reflective of the kind of leadership he intends to bring to the country. If he is successful, and the people who voted for him obviously are more concerned with his promised results than with any suggested means for obtaining them, it won't matter who is in his Cabinet. My hunch is that this administration will suffer a series of self-inflicted wounds and a confirmation hearing is a perfect opportunity to let that process begin.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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