The Nomination Express, Stuck in First Gear

By Al Kamen
Monday, February 2, 2009

President Obama garnered high praise for quickly announcing his choices for Cabinet positions and other key administration jobs. Indeed, he nominated far more top officials before being sworn in than his two immediate predecessors.

But less than two weeks into his presidency, just 17 of the 31 nominees officially announced by the White House have been confirmed by the Senate -- a less noteworthy pace. By comparison, 19 of Bill Clinton's nominees were confirmed in his first 10 days in office. George W. Bush, who had a much abbreviated transition because of the Florida recount, had 13 nominees confirmed in the first 10 days, according to an analysis by the Presidential Transition Project at New York University's Wagner School of Public Service in cooperation with The Washington Post.

Obama has "done a very good job loading the pipeline," said Paul C. Light, who directs the NYU project. "But I've always viewed this as a concrete pipe. You shove the people into the pipe, but they can only go so fast given the natural paperwork burdens, hearing burdens and all of the obstacles that get in the way."

"This process is very balky," Light added. "It's not elastic. It only can tolerate so many people at a time."

Several key nominees -- including Attorney General-designate Eric H. Holder Jr., Health and Human Services Secretary-designate Thomas A. Daschle, Labor Secretary-designate Hilda L. Solis, and U.S. Trade Representative-designate Ron Kirk -- cannot begin work until they are confirmed by the Senate, and there's no nominee yet for commerce secretary.

Well, There Was That Time . . .

Applying for a national security job in the Obama administration? Be careful on Standard Form 86, which takes endless hours to fill out. There's a trick question in Section 29.

Question: "Have you EVER knowingly engaged in any acts of terrorism? Neither your truthful response nor information derived from your response to this question will be used as evidence against you in any subsequent criminal proceeding."

Okay, so it appears that you've got use immunity from prosecution. And if you lie, you're in trouble. But what acts are they talking about? When you put chalk in the teacher's eraser back in fourth grade? Sabotage, maybe, but no one got hurt, so you probably don't need to note that. Ah, but the tack on the chair . . .

One frustrated administration official who wrestled with the form told us it was "ingeniously manufactured to waste the maximum amount of time and make you repent of ever deciding to serve your country."

Not a DeVry Degree in the Bunch

Obama, who has prided himself on diversity, has assembled a historically large team of top-notch White House lawyers headed by Counsel Gregory B. Craig. The crew is diverse -- 11 of the 20 top lawyers are women -- but it is much less diverse when it comes to academic credentials.

Half of the 20 senior counselors come from only two law schools: Harvard or Yale, each with five graduates. Two other lawyers boast Stanford law degrees, while others picked up their JDs at the University of Chicago, Columbia, Cornell and Northwestern.

The lawyers are no less elite when it comes to undergraduate education. Among them are two graduates each of Harvard, Yale, Brown and Duke. Craig, however, holds a special distinction as the only one to have attended both Harvard and Yale.

Where the Charles Meets the Potomac

Speaking of the Ivy League, it looks as though there's a serious economist brain drain at Harvard. The Harvard Crimson reported last week that three top profs are headed this way. Economics professor Jeremy C. Stein e-mailed students last week that he was "off to Washington" for an unspecified job. Kennedy School professor Jeffrey B. Liebman, who worked in the Clinton administration, will be executive associate director at the Office of Management and Budget, the paper reported, and health-care economist David M. Cutler, an Obama campaign adviser, is coming down for an unspecified health-care policy position.

Cutler worked in the Clinton National Economic Council and has been an adviser for other Democratic presidential contenders. His most recent book on health-care spending is "Your Money or Your Life."

A true Jack Benny fan.

Trading Spaces in Foggy Bottom

They are playing musical offices at the State Department, building walls and maybe extending the mahogany paneling on the seventh floor, where all the top officials sit. The game started when the administration decided to fill the heretofore unfilled second deputy slot, for management and other matters, giving it to Jacob J. Lew.

He needed a suitable, spacious office befitting his deputyship, so William J. Burns, the top undersecretary, now the No. 4 official, was bumped down the hall, requiring folks down the line to accommodate.

(And contrary to some mean-spirited rumors, Richard C. Holbrooke, the super-special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, has not commandeered space on the seventh floor. They've found a fine area on the first floor for him and the staff that he's cobbled together from other parts of the building.)

Moving On . . .

Jeffrey Berman, who served as national delegate director for the Obama presidential campaign, leading Obama's vaunted effort to target caucus states and build Obama's lead in the Democratic primaries, is not joining the administration. The law firm Bryan Cave is planning to announce today that Berman will join the firm's public policy and governmental affairs group.

Berman was a longtime political adviser to then-House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt and worked on the Missourian's unsuccessful presidential campaigns in 1988 and 2004. Berman also spent many years as a lawyer in private practice in Washington, helping clients on legislative and regulatory matters.

With Philip Rucker

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