Jacob Lew could hardly have asked for a better confirmation hearing: It was bland, civil, and almost forgettable. Even the activists in attendance didn’t interrupt the proceeding.
Lew, President Obama’s chief of staff until last month, went in to his confirmation hearing for Treasury secretary on Wednesday without much to gain. A few new questions about his past had been raised since he was last in the confirmation hot seat, and he ran the risk of becoming a whipping boy for critics of the administration’s fiscal policies. But by playing it cool and boring, Lew emerged relatively unscathed and on track to what many predicted before the hearing would be an easy confirmation.
Even Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who persistently questioned Lew on a one-time offshore investment and a stint at Citigroup, felt that Lew had survived the grilling fine. “I think you’ve done really well,” he told him after the hearing.
Lew’s relatively low-key experience drew a sharp contrast to that of Chuck Hagel, Obama’s nominee for Defense secretary. Hagel faced sharp questioning in his full-day hearing, was pressured to submit additional financial documentation, and has had his nomination threatened by procedural tactics. Lew stuck close to his script, rarely giving opponents fresh material to criticize.
That’s not to say there wasn’t drama. Almost from the start, Lew was pressed on an investment he once held in an offshore account and on a $940,000 bonus he received while working at Citigroup. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, criticized Lew for accepting the bonus just one day after Citigroup received a $301 billion bailout.
“Explain why it might be morally acceptable to take close to a million dollars out of a company that was ... about to receive billions of dollars of taxpayer support,” Grassley asked.
“I was employed in the private sector and compensated in a manner consistent with” others in the industry, Lew said. He had barely finished his answer before the senator moved on.
Grassley had also criticized Lew during and after the hearing for saying that he was unaware of the details of an offshore investment he once held, which was housed in Ugland House, a Cayman Islands office building.
"Mr. Lew’s unfamiliarity with the most high-profile example of what the president calls 'the largest tax scam' does not build confidence in his knowledge of the tax code, his ability to enforce it, or his ability to help shape the broad tax reform everyone agrees we need," Grassley said in a statement after the hearing. He added that he would "reserve judgment" until Lew provided written responses to his questions.
Lew, a budget and fiscal veteran, also handled questions—deftly, in most cases—on the range of responsibilities facing a Treasury secretary, including dealing with tax reform, economic sanctions, China's currency, entitlement reform, and other issues.
If Lew’s goal was to have an uneventful hearing, he seemed to have achieved it. Even the two activists donning Robin Hood hats and being eyed by a Capitol Hill police officer did nothing to disrupt the event.