The Great Drill-Down

Paul C. Light
Special to the Washington Post
Monday, December 22, 2008 12:00 AM

Now that President-elect Barack Obama has finished announcing his cabinet, he can begin the arduous task of drilling down to the hundreds of jobs in the sub-cabinet. He has already begun the drill-down with his announcements of the new heads of the Securities and Exchange Commission and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

All signs point to a record-setting pace over the first 100 days of the term, but George W. Bush will be hard to beat. He set the modern-day mark by nominating 111 appointees from Jan. 20 to April 30. His director of presidential personnel, Clay Johnson, takes great pride in the feat, and deservedly so given the delays embedded in the increasingly onerous appointments process.

If there is any doubt that the Bush administration wanted to break the record, take a look at the nomination list on April 30 2001. All totaled, the Bush team sent 48 nominations to the Senate on its 100th day in office, including its deputy secretaries of Energy, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Labor, and Interior. It was a herculean feat.

Obama is likely to have a more even pace. His transition team is moving apace to find and vet candidates for most of the key deputy secretary, undersecretary and assistant secretary spots in the administration. Expect his big tranche the week after his inauguration, largely due to the pre-clearance of 50 to 100 senior aides before the election. The pre-election path was opened by Congress in response to a 9/11 Commission recommendation. As the Commission noted, two-thirds of the Bush administration's national security appointees were stuck somewhere in the nomination process when terrorists struck the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, or had yet to be identified at all.

The Obama team appears to be paying particular attention to Energy, Health and Human Services, Interior, Justice, State, and Treasury, all members of the inner circle of departments that will be making key decisions in the coming weeks. The Environmental Protection Agency and Homeland Security also appear to be near the top of the list. Expect Agriculture, Commerce, Education, Labor, and Veterans Affairs to fall behind.

It is difficult to predict just how fast Obama will be given the speed bumps ahead. No one knows, for example, whether some of Obama's cabinet picks have negotiated special deals to appoint their own sub-cabinets. The more the secretary controls his or her sub-cabinet choices, the faster the process; the more the White House controls the choices, the more time gets wasted in negotiations between the agency head and the president's personnel office.

Given her knowledge of how the White House works and his knowledge of the Senate, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Tom Daschle probably made the best deals on their subcabinets. They have almost certainly identified the key jobs they want to fill immediately and are likely to be vetting candidates right now.

Several of Obama's cabinet picks, most notably Daschle again, have also identified their chiefs of staff, even as their colleagues wait for the dense transition team reports that will soon be written by the 400 Obama aides crawling about the federal government. If the past is prologue, the reports will be thrown at a junior level staffer in the secretary's office to be condensed into a two-page memo.

As the nominees pile up in the White House, the appointments process will inevitably slow down. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has only so many agents, both active and retired, to throw at its full-field investigations of the national security questionnaire, while the Office of Government Ethics and its network of department and agency ethics officers have only so many staffers to review the financial disclosure forms.

In addition, the economic stimulus package is likely to consume the Senate early on, meaning that required confirmation hearings will start to slip. As the Bush administration quickly learned, it is one thing to nominate the sub-cabinet and quite another to push them through the Senate. Obama may be likely to beat presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton on getting his appointees in place, but he cannot rewind the clock to the two-and-a-half-month average that John F. Kennedy achieved in 1961.

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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