Wonkbook: Obama’s Cabinet is almost filled, but what about his other nominations?

May 3, 2013

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 (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

President Obama has nominated Hyatt heiress (and mega fundraiser) Penny Pritzker to run the Commerce Department and economic aide Michael Froman to serve as U.S. Trade Representative. The only Cabinet-level appointment left to fill is the Small Business Administration.

But if the Cabinet is filling out, the Obama administration's puzzlingly slow pace of non-Cabinet nominations continues. As Jonathan Bernstein notes, there are around 60 open judicial vacancies, including 11 at the appellate level and three on the D.C Circuit. And executive branch agencies aren't faring much better.

As Michael Shear reports, about a quarter of the top jobs at the State Department are empty. The Department of Homeland Security is missing its top cybersecurity appointees. The IRS hasn't had a director since November. The Commerce Department doesn't have a chief economist. “'I don’t think it’s ever been this bad,' said Representative Frank R. Wolf, Republican of Virginia, who recently wrote a letter urging Mr. Obama to act swiftly to fill top vacancies."

Some of the blame here goes to the Republicans who've made the nominations process an almost impossible gauntlet, and who have stymied many well-qualified, uncontroversial appointments. But much of it accrues to the White House, which is overvetting its nominees and being slow to put forward names.

"Members of Congress and a number of agency officials say the bottleneck is at the White House, where 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," reports Shear. "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."

The vetting, by the way, is real: Insiders says the Obama administration has decided against quite a few people it wanted for key positions but who couldn't pass the vet.

There are two problems here. First, between the torture of making it through the White House's process and then the uncertainty of making it past the Senate Republicans, being nominated for an executive branch position is swiftly becoming a punishment. If this keeps up, we're rapidly nearing a point in American politics where good people refuse entreaties to apply for these jobs, as it's just not worth the trouble.

Second, the rigors of the vetting and the knives of the Republicans are changing the composition of who ends up in these jobs. There's a category of public servant who's lived her whole life in anticipation of a presidential appointment, and we should thank her for it. But if we want a government that's composed of more than just Tracy Flicks, we need to make it possible for people who haven't lived their lives with an eye towards passing a political vet to, well, pass a political vet. Life is messy. Living it shouldn't be a disqualification for public service.

Wonkbook's Number of the Day: 51 percent. That's the share of American three-year-olds currently in pre-K programs. The number is below enrollment rates in most other developed countries.

Wonkblog's Graph of the Day: How the Internet is boosting marriage rates.

Wonkbook's Top 5 Stories: 1) Pritzker, Froman nominated to Cabinet; 2) CBO releases key immigration info; 3) jobs report; 4) more on the Oregon Medicaid study; and 5) could natural-gas cars ever catch on?

1) Top story: One Cabinet post left

Pritzker, Froman nominated to Cabinet posts. "President Obama on Thursday nominated longtime fundraiser and hotel magnate Penny Pritzker as commerce secretary and veteran aide Michael Froman as the U.S. trade representative...If confirmed, Pritzker, an investor and daughter of the co-founder of the Hyatt hotel chain, would be the richest secretary in Obama’s Cabinet and potentially the wealthiest Cabinet secretary in U.S. history. She has a net worth of $1.85 billion, according to Forbes magazine, making her the 277th richest person on the Forbes 400 list." Zachary A. Goldfarb in The Washington Post.

@alecmacgillis: Once again, Obama doing unions' bidding by naming as Commerce sec'y the head of a hotel chain they've been fighting for years. #pritzker

The Cabinet is nearly stocked, but not with that much diversity. "So, with the band nearly all together, how did Obama do on maintaining diversity in the exclusive club? Not great. And for those who expected more minorities — especially Latinos — not good at all. Conversely, the number of white men in Cabinet-level jobs increased from eight in the first round to likely 10 in this term." Al Kamen in The Washington Post. 

@ByronTau: First question for Penny Pritzker's confirmation hearing: Why does the Park Hyatt charge 5 dollars for a soda?

...But the appointments mean no plan for Cabinet reorganization. "[W]hatever happened to last year’s plan to combine the government’s trade, investment and commerce functions into one department?..Sure, Obama announced with much fanfare in January 2012 that he intended to create a new federal department to oversee trade and investment, business and economic development, technology and innovation, and economic statistics. The move would have put together elements of several agencies–including Commerce, USTR, the Small Business Administration, the Export-Import Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corp. and the Trade and Development Agency–in an effort to boost efficiency and focus the federal government’s efforts on job creation." Juliet Eilperin in The Washington Post.

@markknoller: "If the Commerce Committee doesn’t explore these questions with the nominee, I plan to do so," says Grassley of Pritzker's tax history.

Lots of other posts remain unfilled, though. "John Kerry is practically home alone at the State Department, toiling without permanent assistant secretaries of state for the Middle East, Asia, Europe and Africa. At the Pentagon, a temporary personnel chief is managing furloughs for 800,000 civilian employees. There has not been a director of the Internal Revenue Service since last November." Michael D. Shear in The New York Times.

Music recommendations interlude: Wilco, "What Light."

Top op-eds

RUBIO: The immigration reform opportunity. "Next week, the Senate will begin making changes to and, hopefully, improve the immigration-reform legislation I introduced with several colleagues last month. This part of the process is a chance to fix America's broken immigration system and end today's de facto amnesty for those who live here illegally. It will also show that Washington can work when leaders listen to the American people and invoke their wisdom in debates and legislative work." Marco Rubio in The Wall Street Journal.

KRUGMAN: More inflation needed. "Whenever anyone talks about the need for more stimulus, monetary and fiscal, to reduce unemployment, the response from people who imagine themselves wise is always that we should focus on the long run, not on short-run fixes. The truth, however, is that by failing to deal with our short-run mess, we’re turning it into a long-run, chronic economic malaise." Paul Krugman in The New York Times.

KLEIN: Your government, a new song by Van Halen. "Right there on Page 40, in the “Munchies” section, nestled between “pretzels” and “twelve (12) Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups,” is a parenthetical alert so adamant you can’t miss it: “M&M’s,” the text reads, “(WARNING: ABSOLUTELY NO BROWN ONES).” This is the famed rider to Van Halen’s 1982 concert contract. In a sentence fragment that would define rock-star excess forevermore, the band demanded a bowl of M&M’s with the brown ones laboriously excluded. It was such a ridiculous, over-the-top demand, such an extreme example of superstar narcissism, that the contract passed almost instantly into rock lore." Ezra Klein in The Washington Post.

JAMES: An economy of fealty. "Today’s new service economy is driven by the resulting uncertainty over identity. We need advice on every aspect of life, provided in a complex world by people whom we think to be experts in ever-narrower and more specialized fields. We can easily monitor that advice and subject it to statistical testing: are our children doing better on tests? Are we more fit? Are we dating more people who share our perceived interests?" Harold James in Project Syndicate.

BRITTAN: Be less credulous about research. "The general moral is that economic analysis and policy would benefit from a less credulous acceptance of each purported research finding. It would pay to wait until a number of different studies employing different techniques point in the same direction and have survived professional criticism. In the meanwhile we can go quite a long way with a few well established elementary generalisations and inferences from them." Samuel Brittan in The Financial Times.

EGAN: The House of Un-Representatives. "As a whole, Congress has never been more diverse, except the House majority. There are 41 black members of the House, but all of them are Democrats. There are 10 Asian-Americans, but all of them are Democrats. There are 34 Latinos, a record — and all but 7 are Democrats. There are 7 openly gay or lesbian members, all of them Democrats. Only 63 percent of the United States population is white. But in the House Republican majority, it’s 96 percent white. Women are 51 percent of the nation, but among the ruling members of the House, they make up just 8 percent." Timothy Egan in The New York Times.

BROOKS: The confidence responses. "Many men wrote to say that the real crisis these days is male underconfidence...A few women wrote that family dynamics were the sources of their underconfidence...More women wrote about conflicts with other women than about conflicts with men." David Brooks in The New York Times.

The Onion for women's magazines interlude: Enter Reductress.

2) CBO releases key letter on immigration scoring

Obama begins bilateral talks with Mexican president. "President Obama acknowledged on Thursday that the relationship between U.S. and Mexican law enforcement and intelligence agencies is changing under new Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who has been seeking to scale back the United States’ role in confronting drug trafficking and organized crime in Mexico. At the start of Obama’s three-day trip to Latin America, both leaders affirmed the depth of the relationship between the nations at a time when they are trying to forge closer economic ties and people in both countries are following immigration reform proposals in Congress." Zachary A. Goldfarb and Nick Miroff in The Washington Post.

Read this super important letter from the CBO: "How CBO Would Analyze the Economic Effects of Proposals to Make Major Changes in Immigration Policy." Congressional Budget Office.

Why is immigration going so much better for Obama than the budget? "One of the most important questions for President Obama and Congress is why the 2012 election produced so much bipartisan support for an overhaul of immigration laws – and so little for a sweeping budget deal. On the surface, there’s no obvious reason why it should be so much harder to do a budget agreement than an immigration deal." Zachary A. Goldfarb and Scott Clement in The Washington Post.

Wonkbookmarks interlude: Here is a very good database of nutritional information. It's worth a bookmark for your personal reference.

3) Jobs report!

What to expect from Friday morning's jobs report. "Forecasters expect the April jobs report, due out at 8:30 a.m., to provide evidence that things were not nearly as weak as the March numbers suggested. The consensus forecast is that the nation added 140,000 positions in April, though even that would be a step back from the average of 220,000 a month during the November through February period. Analysts expect the unemployment rate to be unchanged at 7.6 percent." Neil Irwin in The Washington Post.

Cuts to government spending are slowing growth. "The problem is that companies have not been hiring. This week, a survey of private sector hiring in April came in well below expectations, while indications for everything from retail sales to manufacturing have also been soft recently. Whatever the data ultimately show for April, economists like Diane Swonk, chief economist for Mesirow Financial in Chicago, say the economy would be showing much more momentum if it were not for the combination of higher payroll taxes that went into effect in January, as well as the process of automatic spending cuts known as sequestration that began to bite last month." Nelson D. Schwartz in The New York Times.

...And the sequester is having an impact. "The cuts may not be drastic, but they’re troubling to tourists, advocates for the arts and other critics of the budget impasse in Congress that put the across-the-board reductions known as sequestration in place two months ago." Lisa Rein in The Washington Post.

House GOP wants to enable prioritization in case of debt ceiling. "House Republicans next week will look to pass legislation allowing the government to continue borrowing money above the debt ceiling, but only to pay interest on the debt or make Social Security payments...The bill as reported by the House Ways and Means Committee is dramatically different, as it allows new borrowing above the debt ceiling to pay interest on the debt. The committee also added interest due to the Social Security trust fund as priority item, and the bill says the government can borrow money above the debt ceiling for that reason as well." Pete Kasperowicz in The Hill.

U.S. jobless claims fall to 5-year low. "The number of Americans seeking initial jobless benefits, a proxy for layoffs, decreased by 18,000 to a seasonally adjusted 324,000 in the week ended April 27, the Labor Department said Thursday. That's the lowest level for claims since January 2008, just after the last recession started." Eric Morath and Josh Mitchell in The Wall Street Journal.

Explainer: Who's getting a raise in this economy? Catherine Rampell in The New York Times.

Trade deficit falls. "The overall trade deficit decreased to $38.83 billion, an 11 percent drop from $43.6 billion in February, the Commerce Department reported Thursday. Exports fell 0.9 percent, to $184.3 billion as sales of machinery, autos and farm products all declined. Imports fell 2.8 percent, to $223.1 billion, led by a 4.4 percent drop in foreign petroleum. Crude oil imports averaged just seven million barrels a day, the lowest since March 1996." The Associated Press.

Boom, bust, or what? Glenn Hubbard vs. Larry Summers. "One cold late-winter afternoon, Larry Summers was standing by the free-throw line at Lavietes Pavilion, on the Harvard campus, somberly shooting a basketball. In the past couple of years, Summers has sworn off Diet Coke, gluten and junk food and lost a fair amount of weight. As a result, his gray White House T-shirt billowed over his loose gym shorts. Summers, the former Treasury secretary and celebrated economist, is well known for his cutting wit and laserlike focus; he is less well known for his jump shot." Adam Davidson in The New York Times.

...And is Europe in an economic depression? "Some commentators say an economy's total output of goods and services, its gross domestic product, has to shrink by at least 10% for a recession to become a depression. By that measure, only Greece among euro members is truly depressed: Its GDP has shrunk by over 20% during its debt crisis. But the 10% threshold isn't generally accepted...Overall, the 17-country euro zone is still languishing around 3% below its peak level of GDP in early 2008. Struggling countries such as Spain, Italy and Portugal have suffered output losses of 6% to 8%. France and the Netherlands have lost a smaller amount of GDP, while Germany and Austria have surpassed their precrisis levels." Marcus Walker in The Wall Street Journal.

...Welcome to the zero lower bound, Europe! "The European Central Bank president didn’t quite deliver on Thursday—a quarter percentage point cut in target interest rates isn’t quite the salve that the 27 percent of Spanish workers who are unemployed might hope for. But in Draghi’s press conference following the meeting, it became clear that the central bank is starting to weigh some bigger and bolder things to try to get a monetary policy in place that will match the moment for Europe." Neil Irwin in The Washington Post.

The corporate tax game. "The only way to tackle such goals without losing revenue, however, is to close specific corporate tax preferences intended to promote various activities considered worthwhile by their supporters. There is plenty of money to be found: a Government Accountability Office study in March estimated the 80 or so business tax exemptions added up to about $181 billion in 2011, roughly the same size as total corporate tax revenue. Yet each of these corporate tax breaks is worth a fortune to the industries they benefit — and fierce campaigning is under way, employing teams of lobbyists in Washington, to keep them in place." Graham Bowley in The New York Times.

Should we slay Fannie and Freddie? "Think-tanks are warning that the cheap money they are steering into the market may be driving up the price of developments, creating local distortions and setting the US on the road to another housing crash. The question of what to do with Fannie and Freddie’s commercial mortgage businesses is about to soar up the political agenda with the imminent publication of internal discussion papers about whether these divisions can be privatised." Stephen Foley in The Financial Times.

Banks feel heat on capital. "Federal regulators, concerned that large U.S. banks remain a risk to the financial system, are pushing very large banks to hold higher levels of capital. This additional capital could likely include a minimum amount of unsecured long-term debt that would place a greater burden on creditors, rather than taxpayers, in the event of a bank's demise." Michael R. Crittenden in The Wall Street Journal.

Fun chemistry interlude: This is "oobleck." Really, there's something called "oobleck." 

4) Everything about Oregon

What the Oregon Medicaid study really said. "Here’s what we can say with certainty: Medicaid works as health insurance. That might seem obvious. It’s actually not. A big criticism of Medicaid is that it pays doctors so little that it’s essentially worthless because no doctor will see you. But the Oregon residents who won the Medicaid lottery got much more health care — including preventive health care — than the residents who lost it. They also saw catastrophic health costs basically vanish." Ezra Klein in The Washington Post.

...And what else to make of it. "Despite efforts to spin it to the contrary, this is bad news for advocates of the Medicaid expansion. While Medicaid is clearly good for some things, it was supposed to be good for all of the measures tracked...[E]ven if Medicaid does improve physical health outcomes, this study suggests the effects may not be large." Josh Barro in Bloomberg.

WV governor backs Medicaid expansion. "West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) embraced ObamaCare's Medicaid expansion on Thursday, another win for the Obama administration. Tomblin is the 26th governor to back expansion of the low-income health program, though only about 20 states have actually pushed it through their legislatures." Sam Baker in The Hill.

Suicides increased sharply this decade. "The number of suicides in a year rose 31% to 38,364 in 2010 from 29,181 in 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For adults aged 35 to 64, the group most responsible for the increase, suicide is now the fourth most common cause of death behind cancer, heart disease and unintentional injury such as drowning. That is up from the eighth spot in 1999." Timothy W. Martin in The Wall Street Journal.

Doctors criticize Medicare proposal on hospital admission rules. "Medicare officials have proposed changes in hospital admission rules that they say will curb the rising number of beneficiaries who are placed in observation care but are not admitted, making them ineligible for nursing home coverage...Under the proposed changes, with some exceptions, if a doctor expects a senior will stay in the hospital for less than two days (or through two midnights), the patient would be considered an outpatient receiving observation care." Susan Jaffe in The Washington Post.

Explainer: Mapping unwed motherhoodCatherine Rampell in The New York Times.

Ad tries to steer patients away from the emergency room. "Here in the United States, emergency room trips have steadily grown, from 67 million visits in 1996 to 119 million trips in 2008, and ER trips can be expensive. One study back in 1994 found that treating non-emergency conditions in an emergency department setting contributed $5 billion to $7 billion in excess costs over the course of a year." Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

Obama 'comfortable' with morning-after pill decision. "Speaking at a news conference in Mexico City, where he began a two-day visit on Thursday, Obama said the FDA decision this week was based on “solid scientific evidence.” Obama made his opinion on the FDA decision known a day after the Justice Department filed notice that it intends to appeal the April court ruling that the emergency contraceptive be made available to women of all ages." Scott Wilson in The Washington Post.

Watch interlude: The first Wonkblog debate.

5) Could natural-gas vehicles ever catch on?

Natural-gas vehicles haven’t caught on yet. Could that ever change? "The United States is sitting on a vast reserve of cheap natural gas. And oil has become rather expensive in recent years. So the logical thing to do would be to start running many of our cars and trucks on natural gas, right?And yet… natural-gas vehicles have been extremely slow to catch on. Last year, out of 14.5 million new cars and trucks sold in the United States, just 20,381 ran on natural gas, estimates Dave Hurst of Pike Research. For context, automakers sold at least 50,000 plug-in electric cars." Brad Plumer in The Washington Post.

Committee sets vote on EPA nominee. "The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will vote May 9 on whether to advance the nomination of Gina McCarthy to lead the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the panel announced Thursday. McCarthy, who would replace former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, heads the agency’s Office of Air and Radiation." Zack Colman in The Hill.

Reading material interlude: The best sentences Wonkblog read today.

Wonkblog Roundup

What to expect from the big jobs report Friday morningNeil Irwin.

How the Internet is boosting marriage ratesBrad Plumer.

Ad tries to steer patients away from the emergency roomSarah Kliff.

Welcome to the zero lower bound, Europe. We’ve been waiting for youNeil Irwin.

How the Internet is boosting marriage ratesBrad Plumer.

Natural-gas vehicles haven’t caught on yet. Could that ever changeBrad Plumer.

Here’s what the Oregon Medicaid study really saidEzra Klein.

Last night was the first Wonkblog Debate! Here’s what you missedNeil Irwin.

How Van Halen explains Obamacare, salmon regulation and scientific grantsEzra Klein.

France has 100 percent of its 3 year olds in pre-K. We have 51 percentDylan Matthews.

Et Cetera

Obama: 'This was just the first round' on trying to pass gun control measuresJustin Sink in The Hill.

Got tips, additions, or comments? E-mail me.

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams.

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