Should one of the more important Justice Department positions require Senate confirmation, as most of the department’s other top positions do?
Approximately 1,200 presidentially-appointed government positions require Senate approval, but many others don’t. One position that doesn’t require Senate confirmation is the Director of the Bureau of Prisons, currently filled by Kathleen Hawk Sawyer.
It’s not a small job, with responsibility for 122 federal prisons, 177,000 federal inmates, and 36,000 staff.
The director position is usually rarely in the news, but former Director Hugh Hurwitz earned headlines for his August removal by Attorney General William Barr. Hurwitz led the bureau while perhaps the two most prominent federal inmates, Whitey Bulger and Jeffrey Epstein, both died while in federal custody: the former killed by another inmate, the latter died while under a 24/7 suicide watch.
What the bill does
The Federal Prisons Accountability Act would require the Bureau of Prisons director be appointed by the president instead of the attorney general, confirmed by the U.S. Senate, and serve for a single 10-year term.
This single 10-year term would be identical to the FBI director, a similar position directing a Justice Department agency. The idea is that the longer tenure would span two or more presidents and insulate the director from partisan pressures.
It was introduced in the Senate on October 30 as bill number S. 2742, by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Senate Majority Leader.
What supporters say
Supporters argue that it’s only fair for the legislative branch to have a say in confirming this important executive branch position, as it does for so many others — including arguably some less important positions than this one.
“The Senate is in the personnel business, responsible for evaluating the qualifications of more than a thousand of a president’s nominees to staff the federal government,” Sen. McConnell said in a press release. “The Director of the Bureau of Prisons, in charge of over 36,000 employees and a multi-billion dollar budget, should be subject to the Senate’s consideration and confirmation.”
“Our bipartisan legislation extending the Senate’s advice and consent over this position can increase transparency and accountability at the BOP,” Sen. McConnell continued, “and help protect federal corrections officers, including hundreds of Kentuckians, from harm.”
What opponents say
GovTrack Insider was unable to locate any explicit statements of opposition. There are arguments in favor of reducing the _overall _number of executive branch appointees requiring Senate confirmation — see page 15 in that linked PDF. However, GovTrack Insider was unable to locate anybody publicly advocating for no Senate confirmation on the Bureau of Prisons director_ specifically_.
It’s not an argument in opposition, but Attorney General Barr said that the new director he appointed in August was supremely qualified for the job, so perhaps a Senate confirmation and hearings would have been unnecessary.
“Under Dr. Hawk Sawyer’s previous tenure at the Bureau, she led the agency with excellence, innovation, and efficiency, receiving numerous awards for her outstanding leadership,” Attorney General Barr said in a press release announcing her promotion. “During this critical juncture, I am confident Dr. Hawk Sawyer… will lead BOP with the competence, skill, and resourcefulness [she has embodied throughout her government career].”
Odds of passage
The legislation was previously introduced by Sen. McConnell in 2012, in 2015, and in 2016. None of those three versions came up for a Senate vote, not even the 2015 or 2016 versions when lead sponsor Sen. McConnell controlled the upper chamber’s agenda.
The current version has four bipartisan cosponsors: three Republicans and one Democrat, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ). That’s identical to the three Republican cosponsors and one Democratic cosponsor for the most recent 2016 version, although the Democrat was then Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ).
(It’s unclear why Sen. Booker is not yet cosponsoring the current version; perhaps he’s wary of cosponsoring legislation with the top Senate Republican while running for president.)