Scot Lehigh

In pursuit of a simple up-or-down vote

MIT professor Peter Diamond won the Nobel Prize in economics. MIT professor Peter Diamond won the Nobel Prize in economics. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
By Scot Lehigh
Globe Columnist / April 13, 2011

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FOR A perfect example of what’s wrong with today’s United States Senate, consider the plight of Peter Diamond. Diamond is a brilliant and accomplished economist. MIT recognized that years ago by making him an Institute Professor, an honor bestowed on a dozen or so faculty members.

President Obama wanted to make him a member of the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors. He’s nominated Diamond for that job three times now. The Senate banking committee has twice voted in favor of his appointment, both times with support from several of the committee’s Republicans. He’d almost certainly be confirmed if his appointment came to the Senate floor.

But it hasn’t — and there’s no immediate prospect that it will.

Why? Well, meet Alabama Senator Richard Shelby, the ranking Republican on the banking committee. He’s led an effort to keep Diamond’s nomination from coming to the full Senate for a vote — and has said that he will again.

And why does Shelby oppose Diamond?

It’s hard to pinpoint what the real reason is, since Shelby has offered so many. He has called Diamond “an old-fashioned big-government Keynesian’’ and noted that the MIT economist supported the bank bailout and the stimulus package. He’s charged that Diamond “likes heavy taxes.’’ He’s asserted that as a Massachusetts resident, Diamond would run afoul of an oft-finessed provision that no two Fed governors hail from the same region. He has maintained that, despite his stellar reputation, Diamond isn’t sufficiently schooled in monetary policy. (This is not a concern Shelby has voiced about less-experienced conservative nominees.)

Of course, it may simply be that Shelby wants to flex his political muscle. After all, he is the same senator who last year put holds on some 70 Obama appointments in an attempt to pressure the administration to award a $35 billion defense deal to contractors who would create jobs in Alabama. And to build an FBI lab in his state. Shelby didn’t even pretend that action was on the merits. Asked about the qualifications of those he was blocking, he replied: “I don’t have any idea.’’

Last October, in the midst of Shelby’s obstructionism, something unanticipated happened — something that makes the Alabaman’s blunderbuss opposition look silly: Diamond became a Nobel laureate.

Now, if Shelby believes that Peter Diamond shouldn’t be on the Fed board, he should argue and vote against him. But neither he nor others should use their power to keep the entire Senate from voting on his nomination. I’d say abuse their power, but this type of obstructionism has become par for the course in the Senate; certainly when it suited their purpose, Democrats engaged in the same kind of machinations. Indeed, some say Shelby’s real motivation is payback for Senate Democrats having kept George W. Bush’s 2007 nomination of Randall Kroszner for a full Fed board term from coming to a vote. Shelby himself has cited that as a precedent for what he’s done. Certainly, the Democrats’ (in)action there was also lamentable, part of a pattern of hyper-partisan behavior by both sides.

It would be great to report that Shelby has been the subject of a relentless tag-team effort by our US senators to win Diamond a floor vote. Great, but untrue. Jodi Seth, spokeswoman for John Kerry, says her boss hasn’t yet spoken to Shelby about Diamond, but that “he plans to talk to him and try to get Diamond a vote.’’

Gail Gitcho, spokeswoman for Senator Scott Brown, said Brown “believes it is important for the full Senate to review and analyze Professor Diamond’s qualifications’’ and that he deserves a floor vote. But she refused to say whether Brown had pressed, or planned to press, Shelby to let that happen.

We’ve grown so used to this kind of behavior that it’s accepted as simply the way the Senate works. Or, rather, doesn’t work. But this episode highlights just how absurdly dysfunctional the upper chamber has become. The institution once billed as the world’s greatest deliberative body is now a place where a Nobel Prize winner can’t even get a simple up-or-down vote.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at