Obama may weather judicial nominee storm; then again...

Al Kamen
Columnist March 15, 2012

The forecast for President Obama’s record on judicial nominees is starting to develop: cloudy, with a chance of confirmations.

With Senate leaders’ agreement this week to move on 14 judicial nominations, it’s theoretically possible that the Obama White House, which is currently far behind the past two administrations in the number of judges confirmed, could catch up to its predecessors.

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993. View Archive

But, as with any weather forecast, there’s always a chance of showers.

Here’s the math: After the Senate acts on the 14 agreed-upon judges, there are eight more already teed up for a full Senate vote. An additional eight are in the Senate Judiciary Committee pipeline. And that panel’s chairman, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), says he’ll begin work on 11 more judges in the next few weeks.

That’s a total of 41 potentially approved judges.

If the Senate does, in fact, approve them all, Obama’s number of confirmed judges will stand at 172.

To put that in perspective, by the end of May in their respective first terms, George W. Bush had 175 judges approved, and Bill Clinton had 183. Which would mean Obama’s administration would still lag behind his predecessors’, but not by much.

Is it likely? Well, first off, Obama’s number could go higher, if the White House sends more nominees to the Senate — and if the chamber acts quickly (straight faces, please).

More likely, the number will be lower, maybe much lower, given the contentious air circulating around Washington these days. And the chances of Obama’s catching up to his predecessors’ total first-term confirmations (203 for Clinton and 204 for Bush) are slim.

Especially since the skies tend to darken considerably the closer an election gets.

The Baghdad beat

Word is the administration has penciled in Brett H. McGurk , who served on Bush’s National Security Council staff and has been a special adviser to Obama, to be the next ambassador to Iraq.

McGurk, a former law clerk for the late Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist , was senior director for Iraq and Afghanistan in the Bush White House and a lawyer with the ill-fated Coalition Provisional Authority and the embassy in Baghdad in 2004 and 2005, handling matters such as constitutional reform and elections.

During the current administration, McGurk continued to handle an Iraq portfolio as top adviser to ambassadors Ryan Crocker and Christopher Hill in Baghdad. He had also been lead negotiator on agreements with the Iraqis for withdrawal of U.S. troops and for future bilateral relations, according to an official biography.

Sources say McGurk, more recently an international affairs fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, has a very good relationship with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — something that is seen as increasingly important of late given the substantially diminished U.S. influence in the country.

The possible appointment, first reported by Laura Rozen at Yahoo News, would have McGurk replacing veteran diplomat James F. Jeffrey , who is retiring after a 35-year career in the Foreign Service.

Jeffrey, whose relations with Maliki might be described as, at best, formal, also served in the Bush administration as deputy national security adviser and then ambassador to Turkey before taking over in Baghdad in August 2010.

McGurk’s résumé indicates that, if nominated, he would have little trouble getting Senate confirmation. Maybe he can figure out what to do with that excess space at the 104-acre mega-embassy on the Tigris?

Days of flying toasters

Before Obama got to the White House, the computer systems there were pretty much what you’d find at a senior center in Topeka.

Or close to it, according to the White House’s former chief information officer. Brook Colangelo , who was CIO of the Executive Office of the President, told an audience of fellow techies that during his first few days on the job, he realized that almost all the technology being used was positively retro.

Colangelo said some computers even had floppy disk drives, according to a Computerworld story about the speech, delivered to a technology convention in Phoenix. He had to deliver such outdated machines to top officials, including Rahm Emanuel, who was then Obama’s chief of staff.

According to Computerworld, “The White House CIO office had one data center and no redundancy,” he said, shortcomings that led to crashed e-mail servers and caused White House systems to be down about a quarter of the time in the administration’s first 40 days.

The systems have since been updated to meet 21st-century standards — and perhaps the White House can find a museum that might be interested in displaying those noisy dot-matrix printers.

After the whistle

We were just finishing an application to run the Labor Departmenent’s Whistleblower Protection Program — the first day for applications was March 13 — when we noticed a March 1 department announcement that indicated the position maybe had been filled.

It’s not an easy job — overseeing 21 whistleblower laws that protect 200 million people working in industries such car manufacturing, airlines, railroads, pipelines, consumer products, health care, food safety and so on.

And the program has been repeatedly and roundly criticized by the Labor Department inspector general, the Government Accountability Office and advocacy groups as ineffective, mismanaged and under-resourced.

The groups have urged that the program, now within the department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, be made an independent entity with a much bigger investigative capacity.

The department’s March 1 announcement said the program, to be run by Sandra Dillon, who had been the acting director, would stay within OSHA but would now “report directly” to David Michaels, the assistant labor secretary who runs OSHA.

The whistleblower program is also being organized into a new directorate, we were told, at which point a new, higher-level official will be needed to run it. Ah, so they are two separate jobs. Excellent.

Whistleblower-protection groups apparently weren’t impressed with the reorganization.

“It’s like shuffling beuracratic deck chairs on a sinking ship,” said Jeff Ruch, executive director of the whistleblower group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Hmm. That’s not encouraging. But did we mention that the new job pays up to $180,000 a year and boasts a “great benefits package”?

On the move

Brian McKeon, former chief counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and more recently deputy assistant to Vice President Biden for national security affairs, is moving to the National Security Council to be chief of staff to the National Security Staff.

Meanwhile, Frank Januzzi, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s policy director for East Asian and Pacific affairs for the past 15 years and before that at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, is going nongovernmental to be deputy executive director and chief advocacy officer of Amnesty International USA, heading the D.C. office.

With Emily Heil

The blog: washingtonpost.com/
intheloop. Twitter: @InTheLoopWP.

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