There were no surprises with this morning’s consideration of Michelle Lee as the nominee to the position of Under Secretary of Commerce and Patent Office director. The Senate should – but will not – move quickly to confirm the nomination. In particular, Senator Grassley – upcoming Judiciary Chair – indicated that the Republicans will not allow a vote on the nomination until the next Congress begins in January. Because the new Congress would hold new hearings, confirmation is unlikely before March 2015. That timeline will mean that the USPTO will have been without a Senate confirmed director for more than two years.
For the past year, Lee has been serving as the USPTO’s unofficial director – leading the agency through a time of tremendous systemic change. However, her position has been without the imprimatur of Senate Confirmation as the official Director. In the politics-heavy beltway game, Lee’s lack of official leadership title has impacted her activities both inside and outside the USPTO. These challenges extend both to factions within the USPTO (e.g., patent operations and activities of the chief information officer); interactions with the White House and Commerce Department leadership; and in providing guidance to Congress regarding legislative reforms.
At times, the Senate has legitimate questions regarding a nominee’s qualifications or ethical lapses. That is not the case with Lee. In an email, Hal Wegner writes:
The nominee has been center stage for quite some time. No ethical blemishes or other smudges appear to tarnish a squeaky clean personal image. There is thus no reason to block her nomination. Indeed, it has been more than two full years since the most recent Under Secretary had announced his resignation. . . . [T]the nominee should be confirmed in the present lame duck session.
As Wegner notes, in DC politics – we often see a vast difference between what should happen and what does happen.