October 24, 2013

Norm Ornstein is brutal about Barack Obama’s weaknesses as chief executive in his new column. He does a good job of making the case that several different strands — why we we should think of the HealthCare.gov problems, chronic indifference to executive branch nominations and other management failures — are all of a piece.

President Obama (Jason Reed/Reuters)
President Obama (Jason Reed/Reuters)

It’s not too late, however, for Obama to make a serious contribution to a better-running federal government. The key is one of those things that Ornstein talks about: fixing the broken executive branch nomination process.

So I’ll use his column as an excuse to revive my suggestion that the president should appoint a blue-ribbon panel devoted to getting that nomination process fixed — basically, to massively reducing the excessive vetting that’s become the hallmark of the process.

Why a commission? This is a perfect situation for a commission: Everyone knows what should be done, but no one wants the credit or blame. Specifically, no one wants to be held responsible the next time a real vetting error happens, whether the damage is substantive or just a few days of lousy publicity. Bad nominees will slip in no matter what procedures are used, but a president who streamlined the process could be accused not just of poor judgment in one case, but of making such cases likely. And if the problem is perceived corruption, then the president would be accused of enabling corruption. If the process, however, was adopted after the recommendation of a sufficiently distinguished commission? Well, if that’s what it takes for people to behave sensibly, then let’s get to it.

To really fix the process, it’s going to take both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue. There’s really no way to guarantee Senate buy-in, but there is at least some reason to hope that if the White House got its act together, the Senate could be pressured to follow suit — especially since the president and Senate committee chairs share party ties. One logjam involving the Senate floor has already been eased, thanks to Harry Reid’s aggressive push against filibusters this summer. For the process to really work smoothly, however, it’s going to take committee chairs agreeing to accept radically reduced vetting requirements.

How to put together the commission? Start with a bipartisan set of former White House chiefs of staff. Add a pair of former agency heads or department secretaries and a pair of retired Senate committee chairs. Maybe two lower-level former nominees — especially someone who had difficulties going through the process. And I’d recommend one or two people with experience in corporate hiring.

The goal, again, is to ratchet down the vetting requirements and other extraneous rules that make the process so insanely difficult. The basic idea: The current procedures make it so difficult to serve that all sorts of good people are being eliminated from the pool at the start. Moreover, most of what’s eliminated through all of this overkill has little or nothing to do with real government malfeasance; it’s mostly just about reducing the kinds of stories that flare up suddenly when something embarrassing gets disclosed . . . only to fade away with no real effect.

There’s still plenty of time for reform to help this administration. But most of all it could help the next presidency get off to a smooth start. That would be  a real service Barack Obama could perform for the nation. And it would prove, finally, that he really does care about the practical questions involved in running the government. Which, in turn, would give a lot of people a much better reason to give him the benefit of the doubt when something goes wrong and people are wondering who is responsible.