After an inexcusable five-month delay, the Senate last week finally confirmed Loretta Lynch to be attorney general. The vote is definitely good news for the White House and, not incidentally, the Justice Department. What it says about the Senate itself is less certain.
Lynch will start her job at a critical moment, when the use of force by police is spawning protests nationwide. She will, for instance, have to decide whether to file a civil-rights suit in the case of Eric Garner, the Staten Island man who died after police tackled him for resisting arrest, using a questionable chokehold. As she has been leading the inquiry into that case in her role as a federal prosecutor in New York, she is well positioned to make a sound judgment.
But she’ll also need to address the controversy more broadly, and one of the best ways to do that will be to improve the government’s collection of data. In December, Congress passed a law requiring local police departments to report data about deaths while in police custody to the Department of Justice in order to qualify for certain kinds of funding, and Lynch needs to ensure that it is fully enforced.
She will also have to address the FBI’s systemic and shocking failures in forensic analysis, which recently came to light. She will take over probes of the IRS, for its handling of groups seeking tax-exempt status, and the Veterans Administration, for its handling of patient data. And she will be thrust into the middle of the debate over the federal government’s surveillance authority under the Patriot Act, parts of which are set to expire in June.
The Senate will have to vote on that reauthorization, of course, just as it eventually voted on Lynch. And while it deserves credit for acting on her nomination, it would be a mistake to see her confirmation as an end to Senate dysfunction.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell deserves some praise for finally bringing her nomination to the floor, then voting – with just nine other Republicans – to confirm her. At the same time, it’s fair to ask why he kept his decision to vote in favor secret until the last moment. Had McConnell announced his decision earlier in the process, more Republicans might have joined him.
Republicans’ resistance to Lynch was never about her background or qualifications. They needed an outlet for their anger over President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration, and Lynch – who refused to disavow them – provided a convenient one, particularly for those running for president. Sen. Marco Rubio voted “no,” and Ted Cruz crusaded against her, though he couldn’t be bothered to stick around for the actual vote. Their attacks made Lindsey Graham’s vote in favor of Lynch all the more commendable.
At least Lynch takes office with her own sterling reputation intact. Among the laws she must also enforce is the new one cracking down on human trafficking — the very one that for so many weeks stood in the way of her confirmation. She has some 20 months to make a difference.