Comity or comedy? Roberts offers Wyden a Valium in confirmation hearing

As Steve Martin titled one of his classic albums … comedy is not pretty. That may be doubly true in the Senate, which prides itself more on its comity than comedy. When Pat Roberts (R-KS) offered Ron Wyden (D-OR) a Valium in snark, the Senate Finance Committee confirmation hearing on Steve Mnuchin’s nomination as Secretary of the Treasury broke down into bitter recriminations.

Maybe everyone needs to chill out a bit, eh?

“Sen. Wyden, I’ve got a Valium pill here that you might want to take for a second round,” he joked.

The crack did not go over well with Democrats. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) pounced on the remarks, calling it an inauspicious start to the committee’s work for the year. And Wyden accused Roberts of wasting precious time.

“I just can’t quite believe that the senator would say that,” said Brown. “I just hope that doesn’t set the tone for 2017.”

Members of both parties quickly began talking over each other, with Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) struggling to regain control.

The Washington Post’s Peter Stevenson suggests that Hatch may have created the problem in the first place:

The tone was adversarial right from the beginning of the hearing. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the chairman of the committee, delivered an opening statement in which he attacked Democrats for what he sees as unfairly maligning nearly every nominee who has received a hearing so far.

“It is disappointing that we have taken this turn in the Senate, where the minority openly, and in so many words, is committed to obstructing nominees to positions across the board, in many cases knowing full well that they cannot prevent the outright confirmation of nominees at all,” Hatch said. “My colleagues sometimes are content to unfairly, and in some cases maliciously, malign more or less every nominee before they can assume their posts. I hope that’s not true of our Senate Finance Committee members today.”

Well, the tone is usually adversarial anyway, but it’s usually also collegial — especially on relatively uncontroversial appointments like Mnuchin. Democrats have raised objections to Mnuchin’s Wall Street allegiances, but that usually comes with a Treasury appointment anyway.

On top of that, Mnuchin’s ties to Wall Street have almost exclusively benefited Democrats. A search on OpenSecrets for Mnuchin’s political donations show 59 entries over the past 20-plus years, only two of which went to Republicans — Phil Gramm and Rick Lazio. He’s been relatively quiet for a few years, but he’s donated $10,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Barack Obama, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, and someone named Chuck Schumer, who might be familiar to Wyden and Brown.

One might think that all this familiarity would lead to more comity, not less. Instead, the upcoming transition appears to have everyone in Washington on edge, especially Democrats. That might have something to do with their decision three years ago to demolish the only leverage they had as the minority party on presidential appointments. Perhaps they should try going back in time and giving Harry Reid a Valium.