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Commentary: Senators, do your job

  • Story Highlights
  • Ruben Navarrette: Senate Democrats gave Bush's decisions tough scrutiny
  • He says they're failing to do a sufficient job of questioning Obama's appointees
  • Navarrette: Republicans have been asking the tough questions
  • He says Senate shouldn't abandon its role because Obama is a Democrat
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By Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a nationally syndicated columnist and a member of the editorial board of the San Diego Union-Tribune. Read his column here.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. says the Senate is failing to ask Barack Obama's nominees tough questions.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. says the Senate is failing to ask Barack Obama's nominees tough questions.

SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- The supporters of President Obama assure us that, as a result of his taking office last week, the whole world has changed. Believe it.

When George W. Bush was president, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid often complained that the executive branch had usurped the power of the legislative branch, and insisted that Congress needed to preserve its oversight authority over the president's decisions.

Now, even before President Obama took office, many senators, including most of the Democrats, willingly surrendered oversight of Cabinet nominations by lobbing softballs at nominees and ignoring serious ethical questions.

Like the fact that the nominee to head the Treasury Department didn't pay his taxes. Thursday, the Senate Finance Committee voted 18-5 to recommend Obama's nomination of Tim Geithner as Treasury Secretary and send the nomination to the full Senate, where he is expected to be confirmed.

This despite the fact that Geithner, currently president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, failed to pay $34,000 in self-employment taxes on income when he was working for the International Monetary Fund. Only a pair of Republican senators -- Jon Kyl of Arizona and Jim Bunning of Kentucky -- even bothered to question Geithner on the tax issue.

Or the fact that the nominee to head the State Department has a spouse with an extensive web of international business dealings. The full Senate has now accepted the nomination of Hillary Clinton to be secretary of state.

This despite the fact that Bill Clinton has raised more than $500 million for the Clinton Foundation and Clinton Presidential Library -- much of it from abroad, raising the possibility that foreign governments or individuals who want to influence U.S. foreign policy would simply cut a check to the former president.

As the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee considered Hillary Clinton's nomination, only one of them -- Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana -- raised the delicate question of whether gifts to one Clinton might influence another.

Or the fact that the nominee to head the Department of Homeland Security seems to have taken all sides of the immigration issue. Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, Obama's nominee for Secretary of Homeland Security, signed a bill to punish employers of illegal immigrants and then later lobbied for a ballot initiative that watered it down. She opposed a border wall but supported the deployment of national guard troops on the border.

In 2006, she joined Maricopa County Sheriff -- and media lightning rod -- Joe Arpaio in writing to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to complain that officials with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency in Phoenix, Arizona, were refusing to pick up and deport illegal immigrants apprehended by Arpaio's deputies.

Two years later, Napolitano took away $1.6 million in state funds slated for Arpaio's department -- money that Arpaio said was specifically intended to help him fight illegal immigration.

All these things have helped reinforce the perception in Arizona that the governor is a weather vane on the issue, bending to whatever political wind happens to be blowing at the time.

Still, Napolitano was easily confirmed by the Senate without being asked how she squared her various stances or how she would go about handling the security threat of 12 million illegal immigrants in the country with the government having no idea who they are.

Or the fact that Obama's choice for attorney general, former Clinton Justice Department official Eric Holder, didn't go far enough to dispel concerns that he could be independent from the White House. He could have done that when he was confronted with criticism that, in the Clinton years, the machinery of the Justice Department was often influenced by politics.

To prove his independence, Holder brought up Elian Gonzalez, the young Cuban boy who was taken from his Miami, Florida, relatives by federal agents at the point of a gun in 2000. Holder insisted the "rescue" proved the Justice Department wasn't doing then-Vice President Al Gore any favors since the operation was so unpopular with the Cuban-American community that the it helped cost him Florida in the presidential election.

I remember it differently. Gore was having a terrible time with the issue, flip-flopping back and forth between whether Gonzales should stay with his relatives or be returned to his father in Cuba. The raid was a mission of mercy -- not for Gonzales but for Gore.

When Elian went away, so did the issue. That helped Gore's presidential chances. And if Gore had won the presidency, it was likely he would have kept Holder -- and Attorney General Janet Reno -- at the Justice Department.

Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee have blocked an immediate vote on Holder's appointment. Still, is it too much to ask that even a single senator challenge Holder on his revisionist history? Apparently it is.

Just as it is too much to ask for Congress to be consistent and play the game by one set of rules no matter which party occupies the Oval Office. The issue isn't whether these nominees should be confirmed. I think they all should.

Rather, it's what Sen. John Cornyn of Texas talked about this week in discussing the Clinton nomination. While Cornyn said he would vote for Clinton, he also thought the concerns about whether foreign entities might try to influence U.S. foreign policy by contributing to Bill Clinton's fundraising efforts were legitimate and that the Senate couldn't ignore them.

Wanna' bet? Even if senators intend to support a nominee, they should at least go through the motions and hold up their end of the process. They didn't.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr.

All About Timothy GeithnerJanet NapolitanoEric Holder

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