WASHINGTON — It was remarkable enough that President Barack Obama's choice to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives got a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. Only one other nominee to lead the ATF has had a hearing, and none has been confirmed.
But then hardly any senators showed up to grill B. Todd Jones, making the appearance all the more surreal and, perhaps, indicating that he faced the same likely fate as his predecessors: limbo.
The Senate has been authorized to approve the agency's leader since 2006 but has never done so. The result is that the bureau charged with enforcing the nation's patchwork of gun laws has had only interim chiefs over the past seven years.
The powerful gun lobby has worked aggressively and successfully behind the scenes to persuade lawmakers to forego the hearings — and the confirmations. Michael Sullivan is the only other nominee to make it as far as Jones.
A U.S. attorney for Minnesota Jones is the current acting ATF director and, like others before him, has split his time between the two jobs.
His nomination followed a mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school where 26 people, including 20 children, were killed in December. It was one of several mass shootings around the country in recent years that pushed both Obama and some lawmakers to call for increased gun control. So far, those efforts have failed.
That was the backdrop to Tuesday's hearing.
At times, Jones supporters greatly outnumbered the senators who popped in and out of Tuesday's hearing — some for just a few minutes and most hardly long enough to ask a question. The two exceptions were Charles Grassley of Iowa, the panel's top Republican, and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, a Democrat.
The process was on both of their minds.
Grassley complained early and often that Tuesday's confirmation hearing was premature, saying there were still outstanding questions Jones needed to answer.
"Why are we even here today?" Grassley asked after outlining a series of concerns he had about Jones' work as U.S. attorney in Minnesota. The senator also wanted to know what, if anything, Jones may know about the agency's widely criticized "Fast and Furious" gun-smuggling sting operation.
Jones said he had not seen the details of the internal complaints about his Minnesota work and couldn't comment on them. And he said he came to ATF after the gun-smuggling sting and has since replaced special agents in charge in 22 of the 25 field divisions.
Klobuchar led the Democratic inquiry in place of committee Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont. She spent much of the morning clarifying that Jones took over ATF after the gun-smuggling scandal was revealed, and she repeatedly criticized her Senate colleagues for failing to confirm an ATF director.
"That's wrong; something is wrong when the Senate fails to confirm the head of an agency for seven years," Klobuchar said. "It seems that some members of the Senate don't want to (give) the ATF the benefit of a director."
Jones, for his part, told the sparse panel that ATF was "in distress" when he took the acting director job in 2011.
"There had been a lack of strong visionary leadership, and of accountability and attention to detail," Jones said.