February 8, 2013
Chuck Hagel testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington before the Senate Armed Services Committee. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)
Chuck Hagel testifies on Capitol Hill before the Senate Armed Services Committee. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

Republicans are pressing Chuck Hagel for a truly unprecedented level of disclosure of not only his own finances, but also those for organizations he’s had dealings with. Sen. Carl Levin shot back today with a tough letter accusing Republicans of having a double standard, asking Hagel for a much more extensive vetting than any previous candidate for secretary of defense.

All that is true, but I’ll add a little wishful thinking: Maybe this GOP overreach could lead to executive-branch nomination reform dedicated to reduce, not expand, vetting. Levin’s letter details the current level of vetting required, in order to prove how tough it is. He’s right! In fact, it’s way too tough; we have plenty of testimony from past nominees about what a miserable ordeal it is just to fill out the forms. And that’s the easy part; we also know that plenty of perfectly upstanding Americans have declined to serve because complying with conflict-of-interest laws is so difficult.

That’s on top of just how long and difficult the nomination process is. Perhaps when the prize at the end of the road is a lifetime judicial appointment it might not be a significant disincentive, but for those looking to spend two, three, or four years in a cabinet or sub-cabinet job, the thought of waiting around for several months as the process drags on is a much greater hit.

For all that, what do we get? Probably not much. Presidents already have strong incentives to attempt to weed out the seriously corrupt and corruptible, since their failures will reflect badly on the president and the party; it’s not at all clear that all the disclosure really adds to that in any significant way. Beyond that, it probably functions primarily as responsibility-shifting: If something does go wrong, all that vetting probably does reduce the chances that the press will be able to find some “obvious” danger signal in the official’s background.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep saying it: The government would just run better if everyone agreed to dramatically scale back the vetting.