May 2, 2013

Item one:

The White House conducted an in-depth review of Pritzker’s background in preparation for the confirmation hearings…The president’s vetting attorneys went carefully through her lengthy list of investments and assets…

That’s “vetting attorneys.” Plural. That’s what your government is doing.

Item two:

[N]nominees remain unannounced as the legal and personnel offices conduct time-consuming background checks aimed at discovering the slightest potential problem that could hold up a confirmation. People who have gone through the vetting in Mr. Obama’s White House describe a grueling process, lasting weeks or months, in which lawyers and political operatives search for anything that might hint at scandal.

Not just attorneys — political operatives. Plural as well.

The first item is about how Penny Pritzker was finally nominated for Secretary of Commerce today, apparently weeks if not months after she was chosen. The second is from a broader New York Times look at vacant executive branch positions — numerous vacant executive branch positions — three months into Barack Obama’s second term.

Look, this is insane. It’s absolutely true, as the White House will tell you, that unprecedented Republican obstruction makes confirming these once-routine selections into a nightmare of delays and blockages, making vetting necessary to some degree.

But it’s also clear that the Obama Administration is doing too much vetting because it is incredibly risk averse. As the Times quotes one former official, “The basic premise was that it was better to over-vet” in order to avoid any possibility of scandal.

What’s missing here is a sense of the costs of waiting months before filling these important jobs, and the costs of excluding people either because they have some “hint” of potential scandal or because they’re just not willing to go through such a lengthy (and costly, to the applicant) process in order to work for the government for, typically, a fairly short time.

It’s simple: whether it’s 16 top positions in the State Department, or the Secretary of Commerce, or the head of the Office of Management and Budget, which was vacant the entire time that former director Jack Lew was White House Chief of Staff, or any of the other dozens of empty offices: when there’s no one there, policy drifts. The permanent bureaucracy, and not the elected President of the United States, wins policy fights by default. When new situations arise which need a reaction, there’s only stagnation; when the president wants to enact something, there’s inertia stopping it.

That’s bad for any administration, but it’s especially bad for a would-be activist presidency.

The answer is to reduce, as much as possible, the vetting that goes into these choices. Yes, that probably increases the chances of a scandal down the road sometime. But that cost, visible as it is when it happens, just isn’t as important as the cost of leaving offices empty — and of disqualifying perfectly good men and women who want to give some of their abilities to the public.

I’ve talked before about getting cover for change on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue by putting a commission together dedicated to stopping the madness. But Obama can do most of this on his own. It just takes realizing that the cost of the current levels of vetting are in fact huge, and that it really isn’t that big a deal if a bad apple (or someone who can be portrayed as a bad apple) sneaks in every once in a while. Reduce vetting now!

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