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Topic A -- Obama's Appointee Problems

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Tuesday, March 3, 2009; 8:56 PM

With many political appointments below the Cabinet level still unfilled and the tax troubles of U.S. Trade Representative-designate Ron Kirk in the news, The Post asked veteran vetters and political experts to weigh in on the Obama White House's personnel problems. Below are contributions from Karl Rove, Tom C. Korologos, Larry J. Sabato, Michael S. Berman, Melanie Sloan, Norman J. Ornstein, Stephen Hess and James Thurber.

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KARL ROVE

White House deputy chief of staff and senior adviser to George W. Bush; columnist for Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal

The Obama administration is off to a strong start filling its ranks, having named 75 of the nearly 470 people who need Senate confirmation. But the pace of formally nominating them is moving much slower, with only 45 names sent to the Senate and just 28 confirmed. It's unlikely the administration will reach its goal of 100 officials being confirmed and in place by April 1.

Yes, the Obama administration is ahead of the confirmation pace of previous administrations, but it should be. Changes in law and the energetic cooperation of the Bush White House made it easier for Team Obama to get its people in place quicker than any administration in history. There have, however, been many more fumbles than should have occurred. These have generated bad headlines and a slower-than-promised pace in filling the government. For that, the Obama White House has only itself to blame.

The vetting process has been poorly executed and consistently sloppy. Were potential nominees asked the catch-all question all recent administrations have asked about anything in a nominee's background that could embarrass the president-elect? Or did this administration simply have an overabundance of office seekers with unpaid taxes or ongoing federal investigations? The White House that hired the Democratic Party's best opposition researcher to work in the Counsel's Office apparently didn't subject its own nominees to the same level of scrutiny it intends to provide its adversaries.

TOM C. KOROLOGOS

Strategic advisor at DLAPiper; vetted and participated in more than 300 Senate confirmations

The Obama administration is going through what all new administrations go through. The short version: Welcome to the National Football League. (Refers to a rookie phenom who gets unceremoniously sacked on his first play from scrimmage.)

No matter how many times White House vetters ask nominees, "What is there in your background that might embarrass the President?," something unforeseen almost always pops up. Sometimes mistakes are innocent, stemming, for example, from the fact that nominees must fill out so many forms -- for White House Personnel, the Office of Government Ethics, the specific department and the Congressional committees, among others. Each has slightly different questions. And unless the nominee and every vetter in the process carefully reads and answers every question -- no matter how many times he has answered similar questions on other forms -- the danger is something will be missed, no matter the nuances.

An ambassadorial nominee once asked me for help, and I discovered that she had listed her campaign contributions three different ways on three different forms. When we caught the error and tried to make corrections, the committee thought we were hiding something. In the end she had to withdraw her name.

Are too many people vetting? Probably.

Can anyone really survive deep digging into backgrounds beginning at birth? Probably not.

But the Obama administration would be doing itself and every administration to follow a favor if it gathered the various government players together and came up with a master questionnaire that digs as deep as humanly possible into a nominee's record.

Even then, though, it all boils down to the personal integrity of the nominee.

LARRY J. SABATO

Director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics and author of "A More Perfect Constitution"

The irresistible force, President Obama, is meeting the immovable object, the way Washington works. Washington is winning.

Obama roared out of the gate, appointing key staff and Cabinet officers in record time. But the pace has slowed dramatically. Many Cabinet secretaries are home alone, with few sub-Cabinet appointees in place. And human foibles have felled or slowed others. After four cases of 1040 fiddling, Americans can be excused for thinking the elites who preach responsibility to others aren't walking their talk.

Appearances matter. Even if there are good reasons, or acceptable excuses, for the problems, Obama looks less impressive and efficient an administrator than he did in the initial honeymoon glow. He's also hurt by not being fully staffed at a time when he is trying to do more at once than any president since Lyndon Johnson.

But the greatest damage comes from the lingering impression that a governing party is asking for greater financial sacrifice from millions exempts its own elites. Expect to hear a lot of agitated Main Street voices -- and GOP hecklers -- as Congress considers Obama's tax increases.

MICHAEL S. BERMAN

Democratic activist and lobbyist; worked on the 1976 and 1992 presidential transitions and with nominees for executive and judicial posts.

Assuming reported facts are correct, the hiccup in Ron Kirk's path to confirmation may say more about the Senate confirmation process having become too convoluted than it does about the Obama administration's strategy for presenting nominees. As to the latter, the Obama administration's pace of sending nominations to the Senate exceeds that of both President George W. Bush and President Clinton.

Fortunately in the case of Kirk, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus has announced his support of the U.S. trade representative-designate. He has his eye on the critical question: is the candidate qualified to do the job for which he or she has been nominated? Challenges to the Obama nominees have not been based on their real credentials to hold their prospective offices. This is important; minor errors in complying with the complexities of the tax code should not be disqualifying.

MELANIE SLOAN

Executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington

As we saw at the end of the Bush administration, when so many officials jumped ship, our government is less effective when high-level political jobs remain vacant. Career officials cannot make binding decisions; the Justice Department was hobbled at the end President Bush's term with no one save Attorney General Michael Mukasey left to turn off the lights in the executive offices. So there is pressure on new administrations to fill top jobs as quickly as possible.

After the Obama administration's early vetting missteps, however, there appears to be a hesitancy to move too fast. White House Counsel Greg Craig has consolidated the vetting process in his office, which should ensure tighter standards but may also slow down appointments. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner cannot manage the global financial crisis rattling around home alone, health care reform will go nowhere without a strong cast supporting Health and Human Services Secretary nominee Kathleen Sebelius, and energy independence cannot be attained by one person, even the brilliant, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Energy Secretary Steven Chu. During the campaign, President Obama pledged a more competent, responsive federal government. Now he needs to staff up in order to deliver.

NORMAN J. ORNSTEIN

Resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and co-author of "The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track"

Tax issues have hit several of President Obama's nominees, not only delaying or derailing them but forcing a re-vetting -- including full-body-cavity tax audits going back a decade -- for other nominees-in-waiting. This caution is just causing more headaches. Who among us could survive those kinds of audits intact? For Ron Kirk, a commendable decision to have speech honoraria donated directly to his alma mater backfired because he did not declare the money -- he never saw a dime -- on his tax returns.

With only a skeleton crew of top political appointees at the Treasury Department, Secretary Timothy Geithner had to awkwardly scramble to come up with a detailed financial rescue plan. In many other Cabinet departments, the secretary is the only key appointee officially occupying his or her office -- even as hundreds of billions of dollars in stimulus need to move quickly out to states and localities.

The tax issue is not the only problem. Under an Eisenhower-era executive order, every political appointee the Senate must consider requires a full FBI security check, a long process that is overkill for positions such as assistant secretary of education for public affairs. It may be too late to streamline this process for 2009 -- and if he tried, Obama would probably be skewered for cutting back on ethical scrutiny. But the result is that a long list of nominees will wait for months even to get formally nominated. Obama's noble intentions to get his team in place early have collided with the sober realities of a constipated confirmation process and new standards that he proclaimed. The result is a set of policy headaches that will significantly slow his otherwise impressive start.

STEPHEN HESS

Senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution; staffer for Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon; adviser to Presidents Ford and Carter.

Trickledown from the confirmation problems of top appointees -- Ron Kirk's tax issues are just the latest example -- has caused some delays in President Obama's appointments. But there are 15 federal departments, and this has involved, at most, four: Treasury, Health and Human Services, Labor, and Commerce. Staffing gaps really reflect a president more focused on a government run from his White House than from his Cabinet.

Few workers at Housing and Urban Development will ever have more than a hello from the department's secretary -- same at Transportation, Interior, etc. It's the assistant secretaries and deputy assistant secretaries who make the connections between the political and the permanent government. This is where the Obama administration should learn what works, what doesn't work, and where to find the booby traps in the agencies and on Capitol Hill. Behind every major Congressional act is a roman a clef waiting to be written by those in the upper reaches of the federal bureaucracy.

This year I spent time at the Federal Executive Institute in Charlottesville, where the top of the civil service go for advanced training. These folks are waiting to connect with the president's appointees. Instead they daily read of presidential "summits" to reach business executives, scholars, union leaders, and other experts for advice. But in the long run, it's the working of programs that will determine President Obama's success.

JAMES THURBER

Director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University

President Obama's excessive delay making political appointments is disappointing to the public and to Congress. The process of filling these sub-Cabinet positions is always slow, but Obama promised to change the way Washington works, thus setting high expectations for efficiency and effectiveness in the appointment process. These dashed expectations unnecessarily undermine trust and diminish the president's political capital. Continued problems with nominees, such as another tax problem, this time with Ron Kirk, meanwhile, further slow the president's momentum to solve the multitude of problems facing America.

Vacant positions are also causing a crisis of management. Both political appointees and the civil service carry out the president's directives, but without the appointees, the civil servants are rightfully cautious about interpreting what the president wants. The delay is demoralizing. Successful presidents must have clear direction for their administrations, as Obama has shown, but they must also have people in the departments to implement that direction. Delay causes an administrative policy log jam, policy drift, and missed opportunities to get his policies off the ground and moving quickly.


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