A Longer Race to Run

By Paul C. Light
Special to the Washington Post
Wednesday, December 17, 2008 12:00 AM

President-elect Barack Obama is within days of completing his cabinet appointments. Although criticism persists about the appropriate number of women, southerners, Latinos, Ivy Leaguers and Clintonites, Obama is on course to finish his cabinet appointment process in record time.

Starting fast is definitely a help in shaping the Obama agenda¿confirmation hearings will be underway soon, most of Obama's cabinet will be confirmed on Inauguration Day, and the stimulus package will be ready to go. Attorney General-designate Eric Holder may be a little late due to his murky role in former President Bill Clinton's last-minute pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich, and he may yet be the target of a Republican hold that might provoke the first cloture vote in the new Senate. But Obama's record will still stand.

Obama is almost certainly going to set a second record, this one for the number of nominees for lower appointees submitted in the first ten days of his administration, and possibly in his first 100 days. George W. Bush will be hard to beat¿he owns the record for nominations submitted to Congress in the first 100 days. But Obama's team is already hard at work lining up names for deputy secretaries, under secretaries, assistant secretaries and administrators.

However, Obama is only at the beginning of the race. Fifteen cabinet appointments do not a government make. Records may fall, but this is a marathon, not a-100 meter sprint.

Start at the top of the cabinet with the Senate-confirmed sub-cabinet posts. Obama will have the honor of filling almost 100 additional Senate-confirmed jobs created since Inaugration Day, 2001. According to the Plum Book, which is the Neiman-Marcus Christmas catalogue of political positions, Obama will make 366 sub-cabinet appointments in the 15 departments of government alone, up from 296 in 2001.

Most of the increase has occurred at the undersecretary and assistant secretary level. Between 2001 and 2009, the number of undersecretaries jumped by 27, while the number of assistant secretaries rose by 26. Add in the number of new posts at independent agencies such as the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the number of Senate-confirmed jobs on Obama's list increased by almost one-third under Bush.

The war on terrorism fueled much of the growth, but not all of the growth was at the Department of Homeland Security. Justice lost the Immigration and Naturalization Service, but gained five new Senate-confirmed appointees; Treasury lost the Secret Service and Customs, but gained four appointees; and Transportation lost the Transportation Security Administration and Coast Guard, but gained six appointees. Ever was it thus in previous breakouts and mergers. The layers grow back at the jilted departments.

The Senate-confirmed list is not the only link in the long race to fill the sub-cabinet. Obama will also make 600 to 700 exempt appointments to the Senior Executive Service. These full-time political posts do not vary greatly from administration to administration¿the total number is fixed at no more than 10 percent of the total number of positions occupied in the Senior Executive Service at any given time.

However, Obama faces a much longer list of Schedule C personal and confidential assistants, all of which are vetted by the White House through its 63-item questionnaire. Created at will by the administration with minimal attention from the Office of Personnel Management, the number of these lower-level jobs grew from about 1,200 in 2000 to more than 1,600 in 2005, and appears to have been growing since.

The race to fill the cabinet and subcabinet grows longer with the mind-numbing task of reviewing the growing numbers of Senate-confirmed and Schedule C positions. With each appointee jammed into a concrete pipeline on a first-come, first-served basis, Obama will be lucky to have his cabinet and subcabinet fully appointed by January 20, 2010. That would put him behind the seven presidents who started new administrations since the 1960s. There is no medal in that.

Obama could cut the race shorter by trimming the number of Schedule C's back to the Clinton-era levels, and asking Congress to reduce the number of Senate-confirmed positions. That would make a faster race, a slimmer organization chart, and much greater accountability to the president. More leaders do not make more leadership.

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.

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