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The Collective
Monday, November 23, 2009
By Steven L. Taylor

An editorial from the Miami Herald highlights two ongoing problems that have plagued US politics for some time.  One is an institutional factor, the other a purely political one that often interacts with various institutional features of our system to produce very specific political outcomes.

The piece (Unblock ambassador nomination) argues against a hold being placed by Senator George LeMieux (R-FL) on the nomination of Thomas A. Shannon, Jr. to be the US Ambassador to Brazil.

The institutional factor of issue is the Senatorial hold and the political one is the importance of the Cuban vote in Florida.

The idea that one Senator can block any nomination (ambassadorial, judicial, etc.) basically on a whim is a problematic aspect of senatorial privilege.  And this is a problem that is bipartisan in nature, where the ability to score specific political points with a specific voting bloc in a given state encourages this type of behavior.  As Matthew Yglesias rightly wrote in Newsweek recently, the hold is “archaic, undemocratic, and essentially destructive.”

Shannon’s qualification for the position are unassailable, and he has served both Republican and Democratic administrations.  He has worked extensively in the region, and did a stint in Brazil.  The reason for LeMieux’s opposition:

Mr. LeMieux has chosen to side with critics who feel Mr. Shannon was not tough enough on the Castro regime in Cuba during his stint as the top U.S. diplomat in the region, to which he was appointed by President George W. Bush. He told The Herald’s Washington Bureau that he has heard concerns about the nominee’s record from constituents and fellow members of Congress, including Cuban-American members of the House. “I feel like I have a role and a responsibility far greater than other senators do in terms of anything that deals with Latin America,” he said.

In other words:  the United States is being denied an ambassador to arguably the most important state in the region because he wasn’t mean enough to Cuba.  Given the economic embargo of Cuba and its diplomatic isolation from the US, it is not clear to me what Shannon was supposed to have done, but the bottom line is that a small voting bloc has sufficient sway in Florida to stop a key nomination.

LeMieux’s isn’t the first hold:  Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) had a hold in place because Shannon favored dropping the US’ tariff on Brazilian ethanol (the fact that ambassadors cannot unilaterally change US tariffs apparently didn’t figure into the equation).1

The kowtowing to Cuban-Americans in Florida and corn farmers in Iowa underscore how specific institutional features (the disproportionate power of Senate, and individual Senators, the electoral college, and our presidential nomination process) can amplify (to the point of absurdity) very local political issues to the over detriment of the country as a whole.

To wit:  we currently have not ambassador to Brazil because of very parochial interests.  Further, it is clear that given our energy needs that it would make a lot more sense to import cheap Brazilian ethanol rather than tax it out of the marketplace.  However, because the parties have decide to place Iowa on the presidential nomination pedestal of pedestals, corn and corn-based ethanol has a privileged place in US politics that is out of proportion to its real significance.  Likewise, there is little doubt that the perpetuation of a pointless embargo of Cuba is perpetuated, at least in part, because presidential candidates fear alienating the Cuban-American vote in Florida (a vote whose overall significance vis-a-vis the rest of the country is radically amplified by the electoral college).

Certainly if a given Senator believes that a nominee is unqualified, he or she is free to make that case in committee and on the floor. However, this hold business is wholly problematic.

Sphere: Related Content

  1. Senator DeMint (R-SC) placed a hold as well-part of his own personal protest of Obama’s Honduras policy. []
Filed under: Latin America, US Politics | |
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