On the purpose of confirmation hearings

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Consider the following:
  1. Tradesports has Alito's confirmation trading at around $.95.
  2. Our senators are a bunch of windbags.
  3. The "questioning" of Alito seems to mostly consist of speechifying by the Senators.
  4. Alito (like all nominees) gives predictably vague evasive responses.
  5. Most everyone I know who's listened to the hearings has come to mostly negative views of the Senators in question.

I think that points (2-3) pretty much rule out the theories that the Senators are actually trying to discern Alito's views. Despite this, Senators continue to do this every time there is a Supreme Court vacancy. Some potential theories:

The Senators are trying to influence each other's views: The purpose of speechifying rather than questioning is to convince other Senators to act in a particular way. This strkes me as pretty unlikely, in view of the Tradesports data above and the fact that based on the speeches people's positions appear to be fairly hardened.

The Senators think this plays well at home: This is a free opportunity for them to get national TV time. The downside is that they look like windbags. So, the question is whether they look like windbags to their constituents? Of course, maybe they do but they don't know it.

They're making credible commitments: This is subtly different from the previous theory. The idea isn't for the Senators to actually play to their constituents but to publicly commit themselves to a particular position (e.g., about abortion or executive power) thus gaining favor with lobbyists and big donors.

The problem with all of the outer-directed theories is that you routinely see this kind of behavior in closed committees where everyone knows what the answer is going to be but yet they spend hours discussing it. So, maybe it's just that people can't get comfortable with a decision unless they've publicly agonized over it first.

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3 Comments

I saw one blog (memory fails me) suggest that it's because they assume Alito will be confirmed, and that this is one of the few times that Senators can speak to a Justice. Thus, they're trying to influence him now in future decisions.

I don't even care particularly if they really cared about discerning Alito's views. I almost wish they'd make it more like a trial, where there's a cross-examining attorney and an attorney who gets to try to rehabilitate the witness. Trial lawyers at least know how to make snappy questions, and lead the witness down the direction they want him to go. ("Were you a member of CAP?" "In 1985, did you say you were a member of CAP?" "If you were hiring someone who `forgot' qualifications on their resume, would you fire them, or simply enter an official reprimand?" or whatever the line of attack his opponents want to follow).

A reasonable analogy, I think, is the presidential press conference: the White House press corps asks long, pointed, speechifying questions, to which the president gives vague, evasive answers. It's a kind of test for the president/nominee, in which the interrogator sets various rhetorical traps, and the responder tries to (1) avoid the traps, (2) avoid saying anything which can later be used to portray him or her as a monster of one kind or another, and (3) avoid being so clumsily vague and evasive as to seem suspiciously secretive.

If the responder fails in any of these objectives, then the interrogator's allies in government and the press can pillory him or her at length, possibly causing enough political damage that they thereby establish political cover for obstructing/voting down the responder.

   
The Senators think this plays well at home: This is a free opportunity for them to get national TV time.

This seems clearly to be the answer, especially when you consider what the august senior senator from my state, Charles Schumer, does: if someone stubs his toe, Senator Schumer will have a press conference in which he calls for a complete investigation of the stubbing incident, and the possibility that officials in the Bush administration are involved, and rhetoric that we will find the truth, and so on. His goal -- and the goal of most of his 49 colleagues -- seems to be to be in the news as much as possible, and to sound decisive and incisive in the process.

And consider Senator Leahy, who appeared on NPR in this segment on Wednesday, in which Robert Siegel spoke with him and Senator Sessions. In case you don't feel like listening to it, allow me to summarize:

NPR: Senator Leahy, what do you think of Judge Alito's stand on the limits of presidential authority?
Leahy: The president can't pick and choose which laws he abides by and which he does not.
NPR: On another question, has Judge Alito satisfied you with his answer about Roe vs Wade?
Leahy: The president can't pick and choose which laws he abides by and which he does not.
NPR: Is it important to you what Judge Alito says about his membership in the Princeton alumni organization?
Leahy: The president can't pick and choose which laws he abides by and which he does not.
NPR: And, Senator Leahy, what about the "torture memo"?
Leahy: The president can't pick and choose which laws he abides by and which he does not.
NPR: It seems that you've asked Judge Alito all your questions; what's the point of another round of questions?
Leahy: The president can't pick and choose which laws he abides by and which he does not, and I'll keep asking the question until I get an answer.

Would that NPR had kept asking their questions until they got answers. Anyway, it's very clear, here, that Senator Leahy was there to get as much air time for his one point as he possibly could. Looks pretty wind-baggy to me, I'm afraid.

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