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Posted at 03:28 PM ET, 05/05/2011

Fixing the appointments process: Senate has the right end in mind but the wrong means

The Senate is currently considering legislation to accelerate the presidential appointments process by pulling 200 positions from its confirmation calendar, turning those positions instead into ‘at will’ appointees that bypass Senate confirmation and serve at the president’s pleasure. Not a bad idea per se, but the Senate would do better to speed things up by cutting the total number of appointments all together, rather than ceding power. It should also stop using personal holds to delay confirmation of the top positions that will still remain under its control.

Former Bush administration national security adviser and Iraq-War architect David Addington has become the most aggressive adversary of the change, but unfortunately he has no credibility in doing so. The second Bush administration appointed more than its share of political hacks and unqualified officers that meddled in everything from the U.S. Attorney process to intelligence.

Nevertheless, Addington is right that the Senate is abrogating its constitutional obligation. Although the Washington Post was also right to endorse the Senate’s tiny step toward fixing the system, the chamber has taken the easy way out. Yes, there are ridiculous positions on the list that should be set aside, but there are also positions that are essential to the faithful execution of the laws. The Senate must not exempt positions such as the assistant secretaries for management and a handful of chief financial officers. Does the Senate really believe it’s better to hand over these positions to future presidents to use as political plums? History shows the opposite.

The reality is that the appointments process has been getting later and later with each passing administration. John F. Kennedy had his cabinet and subcabinet in place by the early spring of 1961, Reagan by the early fall of 1981, Clinton by the early winter of 1992, and George W. Bush by the mid-winter of 2002. Obama has already set a record for sluggishness. He was faster than Bush in selecting and nominating appointees, but had less success in getting them through his Democratic Senate.

There are three reasons for the delays. First, the number of presidential appointees has more than tripled to more than 3,000 over the past 40 years. Roughly 600 of the total are subject to Senate confirmation, which operates on a first-come, first-served basis and can only accommodate so many nominations at a time.

The rest of the 3,000 are “at will” appointees who serve at the president’s pleasure. These alter-ego chiefs of staff and assistant assistants are nearly invisible to the public but wield enormous influence in the executive branch, often acting as enforcers for the White House agenda.

Second, the process itself is nasty, brutish and not at all short. Nominees must wait for months as the White House, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Internal Revenue Service, Office of Government Ethics and Senate inspect the 60 pages of forms that must be filled out on the way to confirmation, including one that still has to be completed by typewriter.

The new Senate legislation would establish another working group to streamline the questionnaires that appointments must complete along the path to confirmation. But that work has already been done over and over. Indeed, Congress and the president ordered the U.S. Office of Government Ethics to produce two recent reports on the issue, the most important being its 2001 report on fixing the egregiously bloated and confusing financial disclosure forms.

There are so many other forms that could use a washing, it’s hard to say which is the worst. The Obama administration’s entry questionnaire is an exercise in futility, asking some of the most offensive and irrelevant questions ever used. My favorite is the call for any controversial emails a potential nominee might have sent over the years. Earth to White House: How many would you like?

Third, the current process favors the bland but confirmable candidate, and the supplicant seeking a political resting place. The best nominee now appears to be someone with no record, writings, retirement funds or investment portfolio. Not to mention someone who has never left home or taken vacations to far-away countries, and has never told a joke. There’s nothing in the Senate effort that takes care of that.

More important, the Senate legislation does nothing to limit the frivolous use of personal holds that wreak havoc on the confirmation process. Individual senators will retain their authority to stymie action often because of angst over policies that have nothing to do with a nominee’s role. The Senate should stop itself before it holds again.

Instead of giving the president even more authority to fill jobs with whomever needs a plum, the Senate should cut down the number of presidential appointees. Eliminating half of the president’s appointees would not only save more than $100 million a year in salaries and benefits, it would provide an opportunity to streamline an executive suite that is jammed with layer upon layer of minimally qualified appointees.

The Senate should also set new deadlines for the appointments process. Presidents should be given no more than 90 days to submit executive nominations to the Senate, and the Senate should be given no more than 90 days to hold an up-or-down vote.

If the Senate really wants to shock the system into action, it should then abolish any position that cannot be filled in the 180-day period. This “doomsday” mechanism would give both branches ample incentive to protect appointees from the political harassment that plagues the process at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. The Senate should consider it.

By  |  03:28 PM ET, 05/05/2011

 
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