The Szubin Question (Forty-Seven Rise Again Remix)

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) speaks with reporters before the Senate luncheons in the Capitol, 15 May 2012. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

“It’s grossly irresponsible of McConnell and his colleagues to keep government from doing what they say it should do: operate efficiently and protect its citizens.”

Jonathan Bernstein

Perhaps some recall an occasion not so long ago when the United States faced such a potential health crisis that small-government conservatives, Republicans who purport to disdain the idea of an American czar, called for President Obama to appoint a new policy czar to deal with Ebola.

The White House, Democratic supporters, and many others pointed out that the Senate could start by simply confirming the nominated Surgeon General; Vivek Murthy’s nomination languished for over a year because Republicans objected to the idea that gunshot wounds are a health issue.

With a potential health crisis pitching Republicans into panic, they sought another executive-appointed czar, instead of confirming a qualified nominee to lead the uniformed service whose job it is to respond to public health threats.

The president already has a “czar” to deal with Daa’ish; his name is Brett McGurk, and last month he replaced Gen. John Allen (USMC, Ret.) as Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL”, but he also needs his Undersecretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial crimes, currently occupied as an interim appointment for over two hundred days because Senate Republicans refuse to slate his confirmation hearing.

Szubin’s nomination got a hearing before the Senate Banking Committee on Sept. 17, and Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) praised his past work in countering terrorist financing during his time with both Republican and Democratic administrations.

“He is eminently qualified for this,” Shelby said at the time.

But Szubin’s nomination hasn’t moved since. There’s no clear reason why, beyond trying to make it difficult for President Barack Obama to fill administration posts.

“Treasury must have in place an experienced watchdog, with the know-how and authority to lead U.S. efforts to track and choke off the financial lifeblood of terrorist organizations,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), the top Democrat on the Banking Committee, said Wednesday. “Republicans in Congress need to stop holding our national security apparatus hostage to political demands, and allow Adam Szubin and other national security nominees to be approved as soon as possible.”

A Shelby spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.

Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), noted that Republicans recently lined up a confirmation vote on a separate nominee, Gayle Smith, for USAID administrator, but couldn’t say when Szubin might move.

Stewart dinged Democrats for “politicizing Paris” with this week’s push on stalled national security nominees.


Jonathan Bernstein calls the Republican refusal a “particularly embarrassing example” of the Republican attempt to wreck the federal government in order to prove the thesis that government does not and cannot work:

The undersecretary of the Treasury in charge of the terrorism and financial crimes division hasn’t been confirmed. Adam Szubin was nominated in mid-April, more than seven months ago. Republicans don’t oppose him. Bendery reports that the Banking Committee chairman, Richard Shelby, praised Szubin at his confirmation hearing. And then? Nothing.

Republicans want to defeat the nominees they believe are poor choices―judges outside the mainstream, for example―they have a right to do so. And it’s fine if the Senate uses confirmations as leverage over the executive-branch bureaucracy and as a weapon in fights with the president over policy. Republicans won Senate elections. They’ve earned the influence the Constitution gives them over the confirmation process.

But this isn’t a Senate that is using this influence to govern. It’s a Senate engaged in pure partisan harassment of Obama, and indifferent to the smooth functioning of government. Agencies can’t function at their best without confirmed presidential picks in place; diplomacy suffers when ambassadors aren’t in place. As for the courts, we all know what justice delayed means.

It is important to recall the Ebola czar mess, with small-govermnemt Republicans calling for a presidential appointment that evades Congressional approval instead of confirming a qualified nominee whose job includes what they wanted the czar for. When it comes to Daa’ish and the State Department, though, we might recall Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), he of the #GOP47 attempt to scuttle any possibility of peace with Iran. Cotton’s bumbling, awful letter raised “questions about the Repubican majority’s capacity to govern”, to be certain, and while the warmonger from Arkansas is perfectly capable complaining that Daa’ish is winning, we ought not be surprised that he would continue to use his office in the United States Senate to undermine the nation and comfort our enemies by hindering the American effort against the evil stalking the Levant”.

Szubin is responsible for tracking and blocking money destined for hostile governments and terrorist groups, including the millions of dollars that are believed to be flowing to ISIS each week. That money comes from oil sales, ransoms paid for hostages and donations from wealthy supporters in nations such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

“We’re not going to defeat a radical jihadist army with more bureaucrats in D.C. and no funding for our military on the front lines,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said in a statement after Obama’s visit to the Pentagon.

“It’s time for the president to acknowledge reality and make the hard decisions required to defeat ISIS once and for all.”


We would, of course, be remiss if we did not remind that Congress undertook the hard decision of trying to defeat Daa’ish, Republicans said no.

More importantly, though, this is his excuse for refusing to confirm a qualified nominee for an office with purview to specifically address the Daa’ish financial structure.

“Grossly irresponsible” does not exactly suffice. To the one, Congressional Republicans appear to have said no because they want a bigger war. They also appear to want the United States to go forward without Congressional faith in its assets.

Akbar Shahid Ahmed reported last week for the Huffington Post:

Senators have the ability to place holds on administration nominees even after the relevant Senate committees responsible for the nominees’ agencies have approved them. Obama opponents are big fans of the tactic. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), for instance, said over the summer that he would block any nominees for State Department positions to protest the administration’s nuclear agreement with Iran―and he has, as a consequence, left the U.S. Agency for International Development leaderless even as worsening humanitarian issues like the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis lead to human suffering and threaten the U.S. and its allies.

Szubin’s path to fully take over his position―he currently holds the role in an acting capacity, which Schumer said diminishes his ability to enact change or command authority while negotiating sanctions regimes with international partners―also appears troubled because of the Iran deal.

This is a troubling question: Why are we not surprised?


Image note: Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) speaks with reporters before the Senate luncheons in the Capitol, 15 May 2012. (Detail of photo by Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Ahmed, Akbar Shahid. “GOP Stalling Leaves National Security Posts Unfilled Even As ISIS Worries Grow”. The Huffington Post. 18 November 2015.

Bendery, Jennifer. “A Nominee Essential To Fighting ISIS Has Stalled For No Reason”. The Huffington Post. 18 November 2015.

Bernstein, Jonathan. “Congress Earned Voters’ Disrespect”. Bloomberg View. 23 November 2015.

Hattem, Julian. “Dems lunge into confirmation fight”. The Hill. 7 July 2015.

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