The most frightening thought that can flicker in the minds of the powerful is the notion that what they are doing for their country is so important, so necessary for the general welfare, that the normal checks on power must be circumvented for what they perceive as the good of the whole. It is a notion that has been used by tyrannical ideologues to justify all sorts of perfidies and horrors.
We are not close to anything like this in the United States. But the recess appointment of Dr. Donald Berwick, and its acquiesence by sensible people, is an example of this type of thinking that must be showcased for all to see, and stopped before it gets worse.
Berwick was nominated April 10 to lead the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, one of the most important confirmable positions in government. He will sit at the helm of a huge enterprise that dwarfs several Cabinet agencies. The Constitution is clear that such appointments are made with the advice and consent of the Senate.
Republicans threatened a fight, noting that Berwick, among other things, has sung rhapsodically about the British socialized health care system. So Obama this week put Berwick in place via a “recess appointment,” meaning he can serve until the end of next year without advice or consent from anyone.
The reasons given raise concern. A supportive editorial by the New York Times that echos White House arguments, here suggesting Berwick’s work was just too darn important for the American people:
Senators jealous of their prerogatives in confirming presidential nominations are grumbling about being bypassed. But there is no telling when or whether the Senate would have been ready to confirm Dr. Berwick. The job is too important to leave open any longer.
Berwick has not even submitted answers to all the questions the Senate put to him. The Democratic chairman of the committee that would examine him hasn’t even scheduled a hearing. The Republicans have done nothing yet to delay this nomination.
Below, the New York Times offers the shocking opinion, again echoing White House arguments, that the Republicans might try to score political points in the hearing.
Republican senators had made it clear that they would use confirmation hearings to distort his record and rehash their arguments against the recently enacted health care reforms, mostly to score political points for the November elections.
If hearings in Congress are to be canceled because someone might try to score political points, then all hearings in Congress are to be canceled. And Republican opposition to a man who supports the British health system is by definition built on a principled difference in policy as well. How do we know where to draw the line here between the political and the substantive.
The argument for the recess appointment amounts to: Berwick is good, we need him, enough of the sloppy system of checks and balances.
Obama is not the first president to take his power too far using this type of justification. But it’s a dangerous precedent, and it is especially gruesome that it is being argued by the newspaper that, whatever its ideological sympathies, should be taking the lead in safeguarding freedom and holding power to account.