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Lance Confirmation Haunts Democrats : Cabinet: As Clinton appointees face Senate scrutiny, some recall that sympathetic hearings on Carter's controversial budget director benefited no one.

January 19, 1993|SARA FRITZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Sixteen years ago, shortly after President Jimmy Carter's Cabinet nominees were confirmed, Democrats learned a bitter lesson about the seriousness of the Senate confirmation process.

Senators who had given Budget Director-designate Bert Lance a sympathetic hearing, despite evidence of financial wrongdoing, were embarrassed to discover that their vote to confirm him did not end a steady stream of negative disclosures about Lance's questionable acts as a Georgia banker. Before the year was out, Lance was forced to resign to face criminal charges.

Senate Democrats realized that they could have saved Carter the humiliation of the Lance affair if they had taken the allegations more seriously at the time of his confirmation hearings. In the future, they pledged to look more deeply into the backgrounds of Democratic nominees.

But today, as the Democratic-controlled Senate once again rushes to approve the Cabinet nominations of a new Democratic President, critics claim that party leaders have forgotten the lessons of the Lance affair.

"It could happen again," warned Fred Asselin, a California political consultant who worked as a Senate aide during the Lance controversy. "A person doesn't have to be a banker to have a questionable past."

The Senate is expected to begin approving Bill Clinton's top nominees just a few hours after he becomes President on Wednesday. It is now expected that even his most controversial nominees, Commerce Secretary-designate Ronald H. Brown and Atty. Gen.-designate Zoe Baird, will receive prompt approval.

Senate Democratic leaders contend that they must approve Clinton's nominees as quickly as possible to keep the government functioning after the departure of President's Bush appointees. Senate Democratic leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) has said that he wants the confirmation process to be thorough, but swift.

By hastening the confirmation process, however, Senate Democrats not only may be overlooking a potential political bombshell, experts say, they also might be diminishing their own constitutional role.

"Whenever members of the Senate do not carry out its responsibility, it always comes back to haunt them," says Ellen Miller, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a bipartisan group that advocates high ethical standards in government. "Nominees who have 10-minute confirmations can say to themselves: 'I don't have to be attentive to that committee. I can ignore them.' "

From the beginning of the republic, according to Donald Ritchie, associate Senate historian, the Senate has alternated between being tough and being easy on presidential nominees, depending on the times and the political power of the President.

President John Tyler's nominee for Treasury secretary was rejected three times by the Senate before he gave up trying. On the other hand, Franklin D. Roosevelt's nomination of Henry Wallace as secretary of commerce was approved in the Senate, even though it was rejected by the Commerce Committee.

Generally, there is a bias in favor of the appointees on the theory that a President is entitled to choose the people he wants to help him. Historians say that the rejection of former Sen. John Tower (R-Tex.) as George Bush's defense secretary in 1989 was an aberration brought on primarily by the many enemies he had made during his years in the Senate.

But the Senate gradually has instituted more stringent procedures for reviewing the nominees and now relies routinely on the FBI to investigate every nominee. Some of those procedures were instituted as a result of the Lance affair, which caused enormous embarrassment for the Senate and for then-Government Affairs Committee Chairman Abraham Ribicoff (D-Conn.), whose panel conducted hearings on Lance and approved his nomination before sending it to the full Senate.

Although Ribicoff told Lance initially that he had been unfairly "smeared" by allegations of banking violations, the committee continued to investigate the matter, as did the news media. When it became obvious that the committee had erred by confirming Lance, Ribicoff was helpless to act.

"We've confirmed Lance," he frequently told his aides, including Asselin. "We cannot now unconfirm him!"

By conducting confirmation hearings for many of Clinton's top nominees even before the new President takes the oath of office, the full Senate is prepared to begin voting on them when it convenes at 3 p.m. Wednesday, according to a spokesman for Mitchell. The first vote is likely be the approval of Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.) as Treasury secretary.

Bentsen, former chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, was approved unanimously by the panel last week, 20 minutes after his hearings began--even before a single question was asked. And he was never asked about a controversial investment arranged for him by a Texas thrift executive.

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