For US senators, it’s all in the question

Photo by Liz Ruskin

U.S. senators take a variety of postures as they question cabinet nominees at confirmation hearings. Some interrogate. Some toss softballs. Many grandstand. Alaska’s two senators stuck to a few time-honored tactics as the engaged with nominees.

Listen now

Sen. Dan Sullivan used his first round of questions with EPA nominee Scott Pruitt to bolster the nominee. Sullivan took aim at a question a Democrat had just asked, about why Pruitt, as Oklahoma attorney general, had repeatedly sued the EPA.

“I think he tried to equate a little bit suing the EPA (with) not caring about Oklahoma’s children,” Sullivan said to Pruitt. “Do you care for Oklahoma’s children?”

“Without question. I’ve got a couple sitting behind me,” Pruitt said, presumably referring to his offspring.

Democrats on the Environment and Public Works Committee worked to portray Pruitt as Big Oil’s puppet. Countering that line, Sullivan pointed out that a lot of Oklahomans work in the oil and gas sector.

“Are these people bad actors? Are they polluters?” Sullivan asked. “Can you describe – you talk about the good people in your written statement. Who are these people, and are you representing them when you’re bring these kind of actions? Are they evil people?”

Pruitt, of course, said they weren’t.

Afterward, Sullivan said he tries to get nominees to look at Alaska issues and also raise what he calls broader concerns.

“I was emphasizing what I think most Americans, most Alaskans feel about the EPA,” Sullivan said, “which is over the last eight years, it’s been an agency that believes it can regulate every nook and cranny of American life.”

In a later round with Pruitt, Sullivan brought up a rule that would require a permit to hose down a fishing boat. (Everyone, left and right, seems to hate the rule but Congress has been unable to permanently kill it.) The senator also spoke about a new village water program he got signed into law last year. One Alaska controversy Sullivan did not bring up – in public or, he said, in private – is the EPA’s so-called pre-emptive veto of the proposed Pebble mine. Sullivan said there was only so much time.

“I had an opportunity to raise a lot of national issues and some Alaska issues,” Sullivan said.

With the nominee for Commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, Sullivan emphasized national economic growth, particularly the lack of it, which he pinned on the outgoing administration.

“President Obama is going to be the first president never to hit 3 percent GDP growth, EVER, in a year,” Sullivan said. (That does not appear to be entirely accurate:  Herbert Hoover never saw a year of Gross Domestic Product growth during his presidency. But Donald Trump made a similar claim during the campaign and fact-checkers at Politifact rated it “mostly true.”)

Sullivan asked Ross if he agrees with those who defend Obama on GDP growth, that slow is “the new normal.” Ross said he does not.

“I don’t think we need to have the new dismal -” Ross said, before Sullivan stepped in to amplify.

“So you think the narrative that’s very pervasive in Washington, D.C. that ‘the new normal is here to stay, this is what we should achieve, this is what we should accept,'”Sullivan said. “I think it’s a surrender. So you disagree with that?”

Sullivan also asked Ross to commit to “working closely with us” on fisheries issues. Derivations of that phrase are constants at confirmation hearings.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski generally sticks close to one particular tactic with cabinet nominees: Show how Alaska is different. It was a message Interior secretary nominee Ryan Zinke took to heart.

“Alaska is different,” he said emphatically, at his hearing in Murkowski’s committee on Tuesday.

At the hearing for Education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos, Murkowski sideswiped her driving passion: school choice. Murkowski said she recently met with 400 teachers from around Alaska.

“And I will tell you, they’re concerned about your nomination. They’re concerned because they would love to have the choice that we’re talking about,” Murkowski said.

Murkowski reminded DeVos there are lots of Alaska villages with just a few dozen students, and that many communities aren’t on a road system.

“When there is no way to get to an alternative option for your child, the best parent is left relying on a public school system that they demand to be there for their kids,” Murkowski said.

Murkowski said she and the Alaska teachers she met want to make sure DeVos is committed to keeping public schools strong. Murkowski spoke for three and a half minutes before she let DeVos answer.

And that answer was yes, Devon promised to support Alaska’s approach.

The Senate is expected to vote on some nominees Friday, a few hours after Donald Trump is sworn in in the nation’s 58th presidential inauguration. Then senators take up more confirmation hearings on Tuesday.