Richardson Debacle Points Up Perils of the Vetting Process

The New Mexico news media were all over a
The New Mexico news media were all over a "pay-to-play" investigation of Gov. Bill Richardson's administration, but President-elect Barack Obama's transition team either missed or ignored the potential controversy. (By Charles Dharapak -- Associated Press)
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By Paul C. Light
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Bill Richardson's unexpected withdrawal from the Senate confirmation process for commerce secretary underscores a simple fact about the presidential appointment process: It is up to the vetters to get the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth out of appointees.

It remains unclear how the New Mexico governor got through the vetting before he was nominated on Dec. 3. Did he fail to appreciate the potential of an ongoing investigation of a "pay-to-play" scheme involving his administration? Did the vetters drill deeply into what was a widely covered story in the New Mexico press? Did President-elect Barack Obama simply assume that the investigation could not sink a Richardson nomination?

Regardless of the answers, it is safe to say that, as Obama aides select future candidates for senior-level positions, the sheer number of appointees undergoing background checks virtually guarantees that more mistakes will be made.

The president's most senior appointees move quickly through the vetting process, often because they have been through it before. Still, those looking into the candidates almost always believe the best about the well-credentialed and sometimes overlook the simplest embarrassments. Hint to the vetters: Political minefields are often hidden in plain sight.

Vetters often take a candidate's word about long-past events, overlooking important details that the FBI usually uncovers. Candidates tend to forget that the FBI talks to just about everyone listed on the national security form, including neighbors, colleagues, high school and college chums, and former supervisors.

Clearing lower-level appointees is more difficult, especially when they are recommended to the White House by members of Congress or well-connected Washington advisers. Vetters are under intense pressure to satisfy these constituents -- after all, questioning a reference from a leading member of Congress is not without political risk.

Another problem is that the Office of Presidential Personnel, which reviews every candidate for a political job, is often a launching pad for vetters to find their own positions in an administration. Turnover in the office, therefore, is high.

After removing former Fannie Mae chief executive James A. Johnson from his vice presidential search team last summer, Obama remarked that he was not going to get in the business of vetting the vetters. But it's not unusual for vetters to become appointees (think Dick Cheney) or to make controversial choices that will return to haunt the administration. Vetters need to be vetted, then, and they certainly need the time and resources to screen each candidate carefully.

Therein lies the problem with Obama's 63-item questionnaire, the most extensive ever used in the appointment process.

Vetters must pore over the information, reading and cross-checking reams of data. This is no small task, especially amid the pressure to fill jobs quickly. The Obama team has set its heart on breaking the record for filling top jobs in the shortest time, but now it has been reminded that speed is often the enemy of thoroughness.

The number of senior-level political jobs has expanded by a fifth since 2001, and as Obama rightly works on rebuilding the civil service ranks at the lower levels of government, he should consider expanding his own personnel process to handle the load.

Now that Don Gips has been appointed as director of presidential personnel, he should move quickly to strengthen the vetter process.

Paul C. Light is the Paulette Goddard Professor of Public Service at the Robert Wagner School of Public Service New York University and is an expert on presidential transitions.

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