Executive Nominations

We are finally in a position to complete our consideration of the nomination of Kevin O’Connor to be Associate Attorney General, the number 3 position at the Department. This nomination was cleared by the Democrats and set to be confirmed before our Easter Recess until it was blocked by a last-minute anonymous Republican hold along with the nomination of Gregory Katsas to be the Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Civil Division. 

I was particularly disappointed with this unexpected development. We had worked hard to expedite these nominations, holding a hearing on the first day of this session of Congress. After a nearly month-long delay, when Republican Members of the Judiciary Committee effectively boycotted our business meetings in February, we were able to report these nominations to the Senate in early March. They were set for confirmation before the Easter recess, until the last-minute Republican objection stalled them. They joined the President’s nomination of Michael Sullivan to be the Director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives as among those stymied by Republican objections. 

I thank Senator Whitehouse for chairing the hearings on the O’Connor nomination. We continued our work in connection with high-ranking Department of Justice nominees the week before recess when Senator Kennedy chaired our hearing on the nomination of Grace Chung Becker to be Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Civil Rights Division. The Civil Rights Division is entrusted with protecting precious rights of Americans, including our fundamental right to vote and our rights against discrimination. That hearing was the seventh the Committee has held since last September on executive nominations, as we continue to work to restock and restore the leadership of the Department of Justice in the wake of the scandals of the Gonzales era. 

A little more than a year ago, the Judiciary Committee began its oversight efforts for the 110th Congress. Over the next nine months, our efforts revealed a Department of Justice gone awry. The leadership crisis came more and more into view as Senator Specter and I led a bipartisan group of concerned Senators to consider the United States Attorney firing scandal, a confrontation over the legality of the administration’s warrantless wiretapping program, the untoward political influence of the White House at the Department of Justice, and the secret legal memos excusing all manner of excess. 
This crisis of leadership has taken a heavy toll on the tradition of independence that has long guided the Justice Department and provided it with safe harbor from political interference. It shook the confidence of the American people. Through bipartisan efforts among those from both sides of the aisle who care about federal law enforcement and the Department of Justice, we joined together to press for accountability. That resulted in a change in leadership at the Department, with the resignations of the Attorney General and many high-ranking Department officials.
The partisan accusations of “slow walking” nominations that the President engaged in at the White House recently, and repeated even today by Republican Senators, are belied by the facts. They are about as accurate as when President Bush ascribed Attorney General Gonzales’ resignation to supposed “unfair treatment” and having “his good name . . . dragged through the mud for political reasons.” The U.S. Attorney firing scandal was of the administration’s own making. It decimated morale at the Department of Justice. A good way to help restore the Justice Department would be for this administration to acknowledge its wrongdoing. 

What those who say we are “slow-walking” nominations do not say is that as a result of the mass resignations at the Justice Department in the wake of the scandals of the Gonzales era, the Committee was holding seven hearings on high-ranking replacements to restock and restore the leadership of the Department of Justice between September of last year and this month, including confirmation hearings for the new Attorney General, the new Deputy Attorney General, the new Associate Attorney General, and so many others. Of course those five months also include the December and January holiday period and break between sessions. 

What is being ignored by the President and Senate Republicans as they play to a vocal segment of their Republican base is that we have worked hard to make progress and restore the leadership of the Department of Justice. In the last few months, we have confirmed a new Attorney General, a new Deputy Attorney General, held hearings for several other high-ranking Justice Department spots, and voted them out of the Judiciary Committee. Today we continue that progress with the confirmation of the Associate Attorney General.

We could have made progress even sooner, had the Republican Members of the Judiciary Committee not effectively boycotted our business meetings in February and obstructed our ability to report the O’Connor nominations and other high-ranking Justice Department nominations as well as judicial nominations. I adjourned both our February 14 and February 28 meetings for lack of a quorum. And of course, but for the anonymous Republican objection, we would have confirmed the O’Connor nomination along with the Katsas nomination that is still pending.

It is vital that we ensure that we have a functioning, independent Justice Department. In January, the Judiciary Committee held our first oversight hearing of the new session and the first with new Attorney General Michael Mukasey. We held another oversight hearing last month with FBI Director Mueller and tomorrow we are holding an oversight hearing with Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff to explore that Department’s handling of issues within the Judiciary Committee’s jurisdiction related to the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, the so-called REAL ID Act, naturalization backlogs, the resettlement of Iraqi refugees and asylum seekers and the shameful, continuing aftermath from Katrina. These are more steps forward in our efforts to lift the veil of White House secrecy, restore checks and balances to our government, and begin to repair the damage this administration inflicted on the Department, our Constitution, and fundamental American values. 
We continue to press for accountability even as we learn startling new revelations about the extent to which some will go to avoid accountability, undermine oversight, and stonewall the American people’s right to the truth. We find shifting answers on issues including the admission that the CIA used waterboarding on detainees in reliance on the advice of the Department of Justice; the destruction of White House emails required by law to be preserved; and the CIA’s destruction of videotapes of detainee interrogations not shared with the 9/11 Commission, Congress or the courts. The only constant is the demand for immunity and unaccountability among those in the administration. This White House continues to stonewall the legitimate needs for information articulated by the Judiciary Committee and others in the Congress, and contemptuously to refuse to appear when summoned by congressional subpoena. 
In spite of the administration’s lack of cooperation, the Senate is moving forward with the confirmation of these executive nominations. With the confirmation today, we will have confirmed 27 executive nominations, including the confirmations of nine U.S. Attorneys, five U.S. Marshals, and the top three positions at the Justice Department so far this Congress.

Of course, we could have made even more progress had the White House sent us timely nominations to fill the remaining executive branch vacancies with nominees who will restore the independence of federal law enforcement. There are now 19 districts across the country with acting or interim U.S. Attorneys instead of Senate-confirmed, presidentially-appointed U.S. Attorneys. For more than a year I have been talking publicly about the need to name U.S. Attorneys to fill these vacancies to no avail. 

I was disappointed but not surprised to see the administration return to tired political attacks. What better time than right now, when the economy is slipping farther off the tracks, when the President’s budget shows record annual deficits, with Osama bin Laden still at large, when gas prices rise well beyond $3 a gallon, when we lost 63,000 jobs last month, and when a mortgage crisis grips many parts of the country. I wish the President would put aside his partisan playbook and work with us to address the priorities of ordinary Americans. 

We have seen what happens when the rule of law plays second fiddle to a President’s agenda and the partisan desires of political operatives and it is a disaster for the American people. Both the President and the nation are best served by a Justice Department that provides sound advice and takes responsible action, without regard to political considerations — not one that develops legalistic loopholes to serve the ends of a particular administration.

I congratulate the nominee and his family on his confirmation today.

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