Nine months after President Barack Obama took office, Washington still lacks two of its key Latin America policy-makers. Obama’s nominations for Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Arturo Valenzuela, and Ambassador to Brazil, Dr. Thomas Shannon, have been placed on “hold” by Senator Jim DeMint, a Republican from South Carolina, over objections to the Obama administration’s handling of the coup in Honduras.
Senator DeMint has stated that he will release his hold on the confirmations of Valenzuela and Shannon only after the U.S. affirms that it will recognize the upcoming November elections in Honduras.
Now that an accord brokered by U.S. diplomats has been signed between the de facto leader Roberto Micheletti and ousted President Manuel Zelaya, DeMint must release his destructive holds. The agreement reached on October 29, maintains that the Supreme Court will make a recommendation, but that ultimately Congress will make the final decision on whether Zelaya can return to power to finish out his term through January. In the meantime, a power-sharing government will be created, and both sides must recognize the results of the upcoming elections.
DeMint’s rationale for his holds are no longer valid as the U.S. will recognize the elections if both sides hold up their ends of the bargain. DeMint’s obstinacy has critically damaged U.S.-Latin American relations, and if he maintains his holds through the elections, the Senate and the Obama administration must employ an alternative solution to maneuver around DeMint in order to fill the void in regional policy makers.
On October 22, Senate leaders were reminded of the urgency of confirming the diplomats when nine former Assistant Secretaries of State for the Western Hemisphere sent a letter imploring Senate leaders of both parties to confirm Valenzuela and Shannon.
They emphasized that their inaction is sending Latin America the harmful message that the “Senate does not consider our hemisphere an important priority.” However, thus far, DeMint has ignored all rational offers to bring the confirmations to a floor debate in the Senate, which would give him the opportunity to express his grievances and allow other Senators to assess their validity.
A senior staff member working for a Democratic Senator on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee nevertheless said that they “remain confident” that Valenzuela and Shannon will be confirmed and that “everybody is aware of the options.” One of these options could be for Senate Democrats to invoke cloture in order to force an end to DeMint’s holds on the two nominees, which would allow a simple up or down vote on the Senate floor to confirm them.
This process, which requires 60 votes, already has been employed successfully for one Obama nominee, Cass Sunstein, which enabled her to begin her work over the summer as the head of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Another approach, thus far unused by the Obama administration, would be to have the White House make recess appointments of Valenzuela and Shannon if the objections of DeMint and some of his Republican colleagues continue to frivolously undermine this country’s Latin American policy.
Senate confirmation of presidential appointees has become an increasingly protracted and politicized process, often leaving an incoming administration without its full complement of cabinet members for months and sometimes even years. The U.S. Constitution outlines the confirmation process in Article II, Section 2, whereby the President is authorized to appoint high government officials “by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate.”
Hundreds of officials routinely go through the vetting process, and more than 99 percent of all nominees are confirmed. However, procedural tradition gives any Senator the ability to place an indefinite “hold” on a confirmation. This hostile atmosphere has caused recent Presidents to serve well into their first year and longer without key officials vital to government policy by their sides.
Republicans and Democrats alike have used this tactic, and while it took just over two months for John F. Kennedy to get his top nominees through the confirmation process, it took Ronald Reagan 5.3 months, Bill Clinton 8.5 months, and George W. Bush over a year according to the Brookings Institute.
Obama’s appointees appear to be following this trend as 183 of 539 of his nominees to senior positions remained unconfirmed as of October 15, 2009. The State Department has not been the only executive department to have senior officials’ confirmations delayed, and nominees from many departments, the Surgeon General, and 19 of Obama’s 22 judicial nominees also have been held up.
The Senate confirmation process was originally intended to allow legislators to review a nominee’s professional credentials and ethics before filling a position, but the process has recently been transformed into a political battlefield. Senators now hold up key nominations as a rebuke to specific presidential policies, and Senator DeMint’s holds on the confirmations of Valenzuela and Shannon follow this new tactic.
There has been scant debate over whether Shannon and Valenzuela are qualified for their anticipated posts. Shannon, is the current Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, the position expected to be filled by Valenzuela. He has had significant experience in Brazil and the rest of Latin America as a highly admired career Foreign Service Officer.
Valenzuela is similarly well-qualified, having worked in the Clinton administration as the director of Inter-American Affairs on the National Security Council and as the long-time director of the Center for Latin American Studies at Georgetown University.
Senator DeMint and a handful of other Republican Senators have disagreed with the official U.S. position on the Honduran coup. Obama and the State Department declared on several occasions that an agreement between Micheletti and Zelaya will have to be reached before the results of the approaching election can be recognized. However, DeMint and several other Senators have voiced their dissent, instead believing that Zelaya’s forced removal was legitimate because it was approved by the Honduran Congress and Supreme Court, even though these institutions have long been known to be corrupt and run by the wealthy elite.
DeMint has been delaying the confirmations of the two key diplomats in order to pressure the Obama administration to recognize the de facto government and the planned November elections. However, DeMint has been relatively isolated in his quest and only 16 other Republicans joined him in challenging Washington’s Honduras policy in a letter issued to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
His position is also contrary to that of almost the entire international community, including the United Nations, the European Union, and all of the countries in the Organization of American States (OAS), barring Panama, which have stated that they will not recognize the November elections without an agreement.
During their confirmation hearings, Valenzuela and Shannon both condemned the illegal takeover in Honduras. DeMint therefore placed holds on Valenzuela and Shannon because delaying their nominations was one of the few tools available to him to influence U.S. foreign policy, even though it would ultimately damage U.S. regional interests.
DeMint has maintained that he “will not lift the hold on these nominations until the United States works out an arrangement with the Honduran government to recognize the outcome of the elections in Honduras and restores the U.S. foreign aid that has been cut by the Obama administration.”
However, DeMint’s strategy has only further complicated the situation in Honduras and strengthened the international perception that the U.S. does not consider Latin America a priority. Ironically, Thomas Shannon, one of the very diplomats DeMint has stubbornly refused to confirm, has helped broker the deal in Honduras.
Valenzuela and Shannon had their initial confirmation hearings in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on July 8, 2009, which means that DeMint’s holds have now delayed their confirmations for over 100 days. Latin America is now the only remaining regional bureau of the State Department without an Obama appointed diplomat in charge.
This lack of leadership has come at a considerable cost to U.S.- Latin American relations, most notably in Washington’s inadequate and inconsistent response to the crisis in Honduras, which might have been mitigated had Valenzuela and Shannon been confirmed at their initial hearings in July.
After the June 28 coup, the Obama administration failed to effectively condemn the extra-constitutional basis of the takeover and did not impose the necessary sanctions that might have expedited a swift resolution to the conflict. Although within one week of the coup the State Department announced that US$ 16.5 million in military aid to Honduras would be discontinued, the Obama administration failed to label the takeover a military coup, which would have necessitated the termination of all non-humanitarian aid to the impoverished country. It was not until early September that the U.S. cut off US$ 32 million in economic aid, which is still only a fraction of the US$ 200 million in total aid that flows from the U.S. to Honduras.
Valenzuela labeled the takeover a “classic military coup” during his initial confirmation hearing, and had he been confirmed to his new position with the State Department, this statement would have likely led to the hardening of U.S. policies, thereby pressuring the de facto government to accept the San Jose Accords proposed by the lead mediator Oscar Arias, the president of Costa Rica, at an earlier time.
Because the U.S. is the country’s largest trading partner and the primary source of economic aid and remittances to Honduras, it is the only country that could have mustered enough influence to effectively pressure Micheletti’s de facto government into agreeing to a settlement.
The U.S. finally ended its inaction this past week when it dispatched an envoy of three U.S. diplomats, including Thomas Shannon, Craig Kelly, and Dan Restrepo, who met with Honduran leaders and worked out an agreement. Had Washington acted earlier in post-coup negotiations, it would likely have expedited this agreement and saved the Honduran people from the great hardships that the crisis exacerbated in terms of economic despair and a dangerous political climate.
Washington’s delegation is long overdue and had Valenzuela been the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, his presence as a member of that team would have significantly helped to broker a peace deal long before.
DeMint’s holds now have no reason to exist and should be terminated forthwith as they continue to undermine Washington’s reputation. As Senator John Kerry, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said in a recent press release, “thanks to DeMint’s intransigence, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee can’t hold hearings to receive testimony from the most knowledgeable and relevant witnesses on our policy in Central and South America.”
The position of Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs is currently filled by Thomas Shannon, who has not played a major role in resolving the crisis in Honduras until now. As his successor had already been named and he was preparing for his Brazilian assignment, Shannon only visited the country once as a part of an OAS delegation in the first three months following the coup.
It was not until this week, under intense international pressure to help with the mediation efforts that Washington decided to send Shannon down, as he is the most experienced and highly regarded member of the envoy to help resolve the crisis.
His influence turned out to be the catalyst that heavily contributed to an agreement between the two sides, which have been haggling over whether Zelaya should be reinstated for four months. The success of this mission suggests that the U.S. could have achieved this resolution long ago if only it had taken a more aggressive approach.
Additionally, Shannon’s delayed confirmation as Ambassador to Brazil unquestionably has damaged relations with the rising regional powerhouse. Without its new prestigious ambassador on station in Brazil, a presidential visit by Obama cannot easily be scheduled, hindering the vital relationship the U.S. should be cultivating with its most important regional counterpart.
Shannon also faces a hold from Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican from Iowa, due to his support of the removal of the import tariff on ethanol from Brazil. Due to these holds, Brazil has been without a full-time U.S. ambassador as Clifford M. Sobel left the post four months ago.
Given today’s announcement that the Honduran leaders have reached a resolution, DeMint would be wise to lift his holds. However, given the uncertainty of the two sides living up to their ends of the accord, DeMint may decide to maintain his holds even longer in order to pressure the U.S. into accepting the elections even if the accord is broken.
Senator John Kerry was nevertheless optimistic after the agreement was announced: “I look forward to the speedy Senate confirmation of Mr. Shannon as our Ambassador to Brazil and Dr. Arturo Valenzuela as Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs.”
However, if he remains obdurate, the Senate leadership has a few options to move past DeMint’s holds on the confirmations of Valenzuela and Shannon. An agreement could be reached to give DeMint an allotment of time to discuss the confirmations on the Senate floor, but up to now, Democratic offers to give DeMint time on the floor have gone unanswered, suggesting DeMint is following Micheletti’s strategy of time-wasting.
The Senate can also bypass a hold by invoking cloture, whereby further debate on a confirmation is limited to 30 hours on the Senate floor and only a simple majority vote is needed to confirm an appointee. Invoking cloture requires 60 votes, which should not be a problem for the 59 strong Democratic majority which could also attract the support of a number of Republicans.
It therefore could be up to Senate leaders to heed the call of the nine former Assistant Secretaries of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs and confirm Valenzuela and Shannon and give the U.S. the experience and leadership it needs for Latin America.
Cloture has only been invoked 71 times to bypass a Senator’s hold on the confirmation process. It already has been used once during the current Senate session, when on September 9, cloture was called by a vote of 63-35, which allowed for the confirmation of Cass Sunstein as the head of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. If the Senate was willing and able to bypass Republican holds on that occasion, then it should not hesitate to do the same for Valenzuela and Shannon, whose confirmations are vital for developing a constructive relationship with the rest of the hemisphere.
Although the White House has thus far patiently waited for the Senate confirmation process to run its course, President Obama should consider taking advantage of the coming Thanksgiving and Christmas recesses to make recess appointments if the holds have not been lifted by then.
The damage caused by the further delay can be avoided due to a constitutional provision that allows for the president to “fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.”
Due to the increasingly drawn out and politicized nature of the confirmation process, recess appointments have become a favored fall-back strategy for presidents to circumvent the confirmation process. The temporary appointments last until the end of the Senate’s next session, which would mean Valenzuela and Shannon could hold office until the end of next year. After their recess appointments, the Senate can still take action and confirm the two men through the regular confirmation process, which would allow them to serve through the rest of the Obama presidency.
Former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush made 139 and 171 recess appointments respectively, and several of Bush’s recess appointments were controversial candidates to key foreign policy positions. His nomination of Otto Reich as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, was held up by Democrats and even some Republicans, forcing the White House to make a recess appointment of Reich in January 2002.
During his second term in 2005, Bush nominated the equally controversial John R. Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations. After being blocked by Democratic Senators he again resorted to a recess appointment, taking advantage of the Senate’s summer break to appoint Bolton, five months after his initial nomination had been made.
Obama, then a Senator, acknowledged the legitimate use of this tactic although he disagreed with President Bush’s appointment of Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations saying, “the President is entitled to take that action.”
Recess appointments do not come without political repercussions however, and Republicans will likely lash out at Obama for circumventing the confirmation process. However, unlike Reich and Bolton, the nominations of Valenzuela and Shannon are supported by a significant number of Senators on a bipartisan basis.
Given the numerous recess appointments made by former President Bush, one of which was to the very same post that Valenzuela is waiting for, Republican complaints will carry little legitimacy. Democrats may also attract criticism though, as the Senate majority leader Harry Reid adamantly opposed the use of recess appointments during the Bush administration, saying they were the “latest abuse of power by the Bush White House.”
An initial opportunity for utilizing recess appointments was passed over when Reid canceled the Senate’s Columbus Day recess to work on health care legislation. However, the Senate will be recessing for Thanksgiving and Christmas shortly, which will give Obama the opportunity to force through the appointments of Valenzuela and Shannon if DeMint maintains his hold.
Every day that passes without Valenzuela and Shannon at their vital posts further strains U.S.-Latin American relations and shows that Washington is not earnestly committed to its southern neighbors. If confirmed or appointed, their leadership will almost immediately help improve U.S. policy towards Latin America, which has already taken its toll by unnecessarily prolonging the crisis in Honduras.
If DeMint maintains his ideological stranglehold on the confirmation process, either the Senate or the Obama White House should take prompt action to ensure that Valenzuela and Shannon can get to work.
Nicholas Maliska is a research associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) – www.coha.org. The organization is a think tank established in 1975 to discuss and promote inter-American relationship. Email: email@example.com.
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