May 3, 2013

One of the big reasons Barack Obama has been slow to fill executive-branch vacancies through his presidency is, by all accounts, what has become an insane level of vetting. It’s cumulative across presidencies: The tendency is to promise a cleaner administration than the previous one, which translates eventually into more years of financial records to comb through, more transcripts of every public statement to read, more of everything.

And indeed, Obama’s administration has been unusually scandal-free. I’ve argued that too much vetting imposes a heavy cost, in terms of both filling positions slowly and screening out plenty of excellent people who can’t or won’t put up with that kind of microscopic examination of their lives. But what about the benefits side? Is there a connection between intense vetting and avoiding scandal?

I don’t think so. At best, it’s a good cover-your-behind strategy for everyone involved to avoid being blamed for scandal. And that, of course, is a terrible reason to do it.

There are two parts to this. One is scandals involving confirmed nominees who might have been weeded out in advance. But it’s hard to see how, for example, Clinton administration scandals such as Whitewater or travelgate could have been prevented by more careful vetting of executive-branch nominees. The same with the Valerie Plame affair during the Bush administration. Neither Watergate nor Iran-Contra had anything to do with officials who had secret conflicts of interest that the Nixon and Reagan White Houses missed. Michael Brown may have been a terrible FEMA administrator, and that caused serious problems for George W. Bush, but his selection was an error of judgment that more paperwork would not have prevented. And the Lewinsky scandal? I don’t think so.

The other part has to do with scandals during the appointment process. If only Bill Clinton could have known about Zoe Baird’s full financial history or Lani Guinier’s more controversial views in advance, he could have avoided nominating them and losing those fights.

That’s probably true — but it’s also trivial. Remember Van Jones? He resigned from the Obama White House because of a petition that he had foolishly signed. Had he been vetted for a position requiring Senate confirmation, he might have been winnowed out. But so what? A day before Van Jones resigned, no one had ever heard of him; the day after he left, no one remembered him. The same is true for virtually all unsuccessful nominations: voters are extremely unlikely to pay any attention at all to them.

Worrying about those kinds of inside-the-Beltway setbacks because they dominate the news cycle for a day or two is exactly the kind of thing that both Obama presidential campaigns were so good about avoiding. And yet, apparently, they have allowed the threat of it to create important logjams with serious substantive consequences.

The truth is that most vetting is a waste of everyone’s time, and the overall effect is a disaster for the Obama presidency and for good governing in general.

The solution for the administration is easy: Reduce vetting. Drastically.

And then start working on getting the Senate to match that rollback (Senate committee requirements are a large part of the problem) and to switch to simple-majority cloture on executive-branch nominations. But getting the Senate to move is hard. Getting the White House to change is something that Barack Obama could do whenever he wants to.

He should want to. Reduce vetting now!