When a president picks his administration officials, the opposing political party can't expect to be thrilled with the selections. Right now, Democrats in the Senate are trying to block the nominations of three men chosen by George W. Bush for important posts: John Bolton for United Nations ambassador, Stephen Johnson for head of the Environmental Protection Agency and Dr. Lester Crawford for commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. They have excellent reasons for opposition in each case, but some reasons are more excellent than others.
Mr. Bolton stands out because he is not only bad in a policy sense, but also unqualified for the post to which he's been named. At a minimum, the United States representative to the United Nations should be a person who believes it is a good idea. Mr. Bolton has never made secret his disdain for the United Nations, for multilateralism and for consensus-seeking diplomacy in general.
When the Senate Foreign Relations Committee begins taking testimony on Mr. Bolton's nomination next week, it is also expected to hear other charges about his fitness, like allegations that when he was under secretary of state for arms control, he tried to distort intelligence reports by intimidating analysts who disagreed with him. After the invasion of Iraq, complaints that top advisers to the president had attempted to make intelligence reports conform to a preconceived conclusion about Saddam Hussein's weapons programs were often aimed in Mr. Bolton's direction.
All of this is very much to the point. When the country chooses an ambassador to the United Nations, it ought to avoid picking someone whose bullying style of leadership symbolizes everything that created the current estrangement between the United States and most of the world. One of the goals of Mr. Bush's second term was supposed to be rapprochement with other nations, whose assistance the United States desperately needs to curb the proliferation of the real weapons of mass destruction.
Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee are fighting to actually kill Mr. Bolton's nomination; all eyes are on Lincoln Chafee, the moderate Republican swing vote who has a record of being very supportive of the United Nations. In the case of Dr. Crawford and Mr. Johnson, a few senators are threatening to block what would be easy confirmations by putting a hold on each nomination before it goes to the Senate floor.
The right to block a nomination, like the right to filibuster a bill on the Senate floor, is one of the few tools the minority party has for affecting public policy. But it needs to be used with discretion. Mr. Johnson, in particular, seems like a bad choice for such a fight. His main drawback is that he is unlikely to put up the slightest resistance to Mr. Bush's policies, which have not been helpful in protecting the nation's clean air and water. Unfortunately, that will be the case whether this particular nomination goes through or not, and the president clearly has the capacity to find a less qualified yes-man for the job.
Senators Barbara Boxer of California and Ben Nelson of Florida are threatening to stall Mr. Johnson's confirmation unless he promises to end a suspended Florida study in which families would be paid to allow researchers to study the effects of pesticides on their children - a macabre investigation co-sponsored by the American Chemistry Council. The idea that the E.P.A. would pay families to continue exposing their children to potentially dangerous chemicals is on its face outrageous - and made worse by the study's ghoulish acronym, Cheers, for Children's Environmental Exposure Research Study. But the study has already been stopped, pending a review. It would have been a good sign of independence if Mr. Johnson had called a complete halt, but there seems little likelihood that the study will ever be revived. This seems like a weak reason to stop a Senate vote.
In the case of the F.D.A., Senators Hillary Clinton of New York and Patty Murray of Washington are threatening to keep the nomination from the floor unless Dr. Crawford prompts his agency to make a long-delayed decision on whether the so-called morning-after pill may be sold over the counter.
Their cause is righteous. If taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex, the pills can end unwanted pregnancies - so making them readily available could drastically cut down on the number of abortions. Two committees of expert advisers voted overwhelmingly in favor of selling the medication over the counter, but the F.D.A. has failed to do anything. Another proposal, which would limit its sale to women over 16, has also been pending.
Dr. Crawford has been the deputy or acting commissioner during a very troubled period for the drug agency. He presided over fiascos involving cox-2 painkillers, antidepressants and other drugs. He is clearly afraid to let his agency make a decision on the morning-after pill that will get him in hot water with social conservatives or with those who believe that the F.D.A. should be run on the basis of science, not theology. That timidity doesn't suggest that he would impose needed reform in other areas.
The Senate should vote on Dr. Crawford and defeat his nomination on the merits. If the Democratic senators are going to choose a disastrous Bush nomination to block, our choice is Mr. Bolton's.
© 2005 NY Times