Death by Questionnaire

By Paul C. Light
Special to the Washington Post
Thursday, November 20, 2008; 12:00 AM

On the notion that a bad appointment hurts an administration more than a good appointment helps, Barack Obama's presidential transition recently rolled out its 63-item questionnaire for prospective nominees.

It is just the first of many questionnaires the Obama appointees face. If they survive the 63-item review and are announced as intended nominees, appointees must complete their national security clearance and financial disclosure forms. If they survive vetting by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and U.S. Office of Government Ethics (OGE) and are formally nominated for confirmation, they must answer an entirely new list of questions from their Senate confirmation committee.

Because there has never been any reconciliation across the forms, every step of the process introduces slight variations on the same old questions. Two thirds of the 300 questions are repeats with slight variations in how they must be answered.

Everyone wants to know about education, employment, assets, liabilities, and even stock trades, for example, but they often want the information in different categories and amounts. The transition form asks about traffic fines over $50, while the FBI asks about fines over $300; the transition asks about gifts worth more than $50 unless they come from family and "close and longstanding personal friends," while the OGE asks about gifts worth more than $260; the transition asks about loans given or received over $10,000, while the OGE asks about liabilities sorted into eleven categories from under $15,000 to over $50,000,000.

No form is more difficult than the new transition "personal data questionnaire" that Obama appointees must complete before they are even announced as intended nominees. It is a wonder that anyone stays in the process after they read the open-ended questions. Built to screen out troubled appointees before they can embarrass the president-elect, the form could not be more intrusive. Every question may be warranted, but the form sends a blunt message to potential appointees: They are guilty until proven innocent.

This year's form not only covers the standard personal and financial history, but has an entirely new section on internet activity. Nominees are asked whether they have ever sent a controversial email, text message, or instant message. They are also asked for their internet "handles," and access to personal pages on Facebook and My Space. The questions make perfect sense in this age of "living out loud," as Millennials put it. At least the form does not ask about avatars.

The transition is right to drill deep into the backgrounds of potential nominees, even if some of the questions stretch credulity. Does the transition really need to ask nominees whether anyone might take steps, fairly or unfairly, overtly or covertly, to criticize their nomination, including news organizations? And what might be the right answer? Does the Obama administration really want nominees who have never been criticized, even unfairly?

Taken as a whole, the forms now go much too far. The forms could be scaled back by two thirds without the slightest threat to national security or White House comfort. There is no longer any reason to ask nominees to list every foreign trip they have taken over the past fifteen years, nor any reason to ask about the birthplaces of parents. Many of these questions track back to the McCarthy era, while others cover scandals long forgotten.

Nor is there any excuse for asking the same question over and over. There have been several notable efforts in recent years to move toward a single form that might serve as a platform at all stages of the appointments process. The House of Representatives passed long-overdue revisions of the financial disclosure forms as part of the national intelligence reforms in 2004, but was overruled by the Senate and ignored by the Bush administration.

It is time to revisit the House's work and move toward a single form that asks simple, straightforward questions that can be answered on-line with minimal delay. Presidential appointees should enter office ready to work, not exhausted and embarrassed by a vetting process that assumes the worst. Nor should they have to defend themselves against every rumor that pops up in interviews with ex-spouses, high-school friends, supervisors, neighbors, and roommates. They have every right to be treated as innocent until proven guilty.

Paul C. Light is a professor at New York University's Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service and author of A Government Ill Executed.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company