As Ed O’Keefe reports, a blue-ribbon Aspen Institute panel this week is seeking to draw attention to the difficulty in efficiently staffing the executive branch of the government with top-notch people, especially at the beginning of a new administration. Good for them for generating attention on a critically important but overlooked problem. But I think the panel’s focus is a little off: We don’t need better vetting, but a lot less of it.
The group focused on what it called “systemic, process-based shortcomings” in the “vetting capacity” of the political system. Its recommendations, then, were about overcoming that bottleneck: urging presidential candidates to start the hiring process earlier, devoting more FBI resources to background checks and moving from overly cumbersome paperwork to a modern electronic system.
That’s fine, as far as it goes. But it’s not enough! In my view, the problem isn’t so much inefficient vetting as it is too much background checking in the first place. Yes, appointees for some sensitive national security positions should probably be checked extremely carefully. But most presidential nominees aren’t in a position to do lasting, major damage to the nation if they turn out to be crooks or frauds or even have an unreported potential conflict of interest. The damage that an inadequately vetted Federal Housing Administration commissioner can cause may be real, but it’s also reasonably limited. Meanwhile, the damage that over-vetting can cause is also real, but it’s a lot less visible: It consists of the loss of all those excellent people who might be willing to serve their country but aren’t willing to put up with the broken appointment and confirmation process, not to mention the work that doesn’t get done thanks to all those vacancies throughout the departments and agencies.
So, yes, the vetting capacity of the system should be equal to the vetting needs of the system. And I’m certainly not against making as simple as possible whatever background checks are necessary. But I’m convinced that the best way to address this problem — and it is a major problem — is to radically reduce the level of vetting that the president (and the Senate) have demanded. That’s the best way, and perhaps the only way, to reduce or eliminate the constant backlog of vacancies — and, even more than that, to expand the pool of top-notch presidential appointees.