Republican Sen. Mike Lee's bizarre, hypocritical and, frankly, dishonest crusade to block all of President Barack Obama's appointments is best understood by an old adage from the Watergate era: "Follow the money."
Lee has no doubt gained admirers in tea party enclaves who love to see a like-minded conservative stand up to what they perceive as a liberal president who doesn't respect the Constitution.
But Lee is a laughingstock elsewhere for his arrogant proclamations that he the freshman senator from Utah has some unique understanding of constitutional principles, and if Obama does something that Lee disagrees with, the president has clearly desecrated that sacred document.
But I take a more cynical view. I don't think Lee is honestly holding to constitutional principles as he interprets them. Rather, he is trying to undermine the president to gain favor with powerful forces on the political right.
Can you say Koch brothers?
Lee tried to make the case in an op-ed for The Tribune last Sunday that he must stand up to Obama because the president had supposedly violated the Constitution's separation of powers doctrine. Lee wrote that the Constitution requires that the president's appointments be subject to the "advice and consent" of the Senate, and that the Senate had already voted down Richard Cordray, the president's nominee to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
That's an absolute falsehood. The nomination didn't come to a vote because Lee and his fellow Republicans in the Senate filibustered it. Frustrated, Obama put Cordray in the job, using the age-old practice of a recess appointment. Lee says that violated the Constitution because Congress was not in recess another game. Congress was in recess. They just had the lights turned on once in a while so they could pretend they were not in recess.
Why the chicanery? And why has Lee reacted so vehemently, even threatening to stop all White House appointments, including nominations to the dangerously short-handed federal judiciary?
Because Lee is playing to a different crowd. A very small crowd. He wants billionaire industrialists David and Charles Koch to like him. And he wants his mentor, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, to be proud of him.
Lee twice clerked for Alito, first on the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and again at the Supreme Court, where Alito was one of the main cheerleaders for the Citizens United decision that sired the super-PACs now polluting the political landscape. A year ago, Alito was visibly offended when Obama criticized the court for that ruling during his State of the Union address.
Alito unabashedly attends social and political events sponsored by the Koch brothers, who, arguably more than anyone else, have used the Citizens United decision to bankroll candidates who promise to be most beneficial to the Koch brothers' corporate interests. That would be candidates who, if elected, would strive to limit the influence of labor unions, gut government business regulations, and inhibit the ability of consumers to rein in Wall Street.
Lee's tirade isn't really about recess appointments, or his half-baked argument that Obama somehow violated the Constitution. It's not even about Cordray.
It's the fact that the Koch brothers and their ilk, and the puppets they purchase, hate the idea of a federal bureau whose charge is to protect consumers from people like them.