Joe Davidson's Federal Diary: Trying to Tame Presidential Appointments

By Joe Davidson
Wednesday, May 27, 2009

While President Obama hopes that U.S. Appeals Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor is quickly confirmed for a seat on the Supreme Court, it's going to be a good while before all of the other people he can appoint are in place.

The list of presidential appointees is long -- very long -- and the appointment process, particularly for jobs that require Senate confirmation, can take months. In the meantime, agencies and the public they serve suffer from lack of leadership.

There's one sure way to help speed the appointment process for the many jobs that don't rise to the level of the High Court, and that is to cut the number of appointees.

That's the view of many who have studied the issue, including the moderate Democratic Leadership Council, in a new paper called "An Easy Fix for the Appointment Crunch."

Of course, there's nothing simple about cutting into an appointment scheme that works to the benefit of the White House and Congress and both political parties. It's even hard to determine with precision the number of people who should be included in a discussion of presidential appointments.

Yet, the DLC paper is part of a growing sense in Washington that there are too many people -- about 8,000 in all -- who get work because they have been anointed, including those who must be approved by a time-consuming Senate confirmation process.

That number comes from the Plum Book, a congressional inventory of appointed positions. But the 7,996 jobs it lists includes part-timers, commissioners and those in obscure places like the Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation. (FYI, it has 13 presidential-appointed positions that do not require confirmation, and like all presidential appointees, they can forever be called "Honorable" as a result of a presidential appointment.)

The better number to focus on, says professor Paul C. Light of New York University, an expert on federal appointments and a consultant to The Washington Post, is the 490 full-time, Senate-confirmed positions that come open at the end of an administration. Appointees to 22 percent of them have been confirmed, according to Head Count, the nominee tracker at

Edward Gresser, author of the DLC report, wants to reform what he calls "a well-intentioned confirmation and vetting process gone bonkers." Among the study's recommendations: Confirm fewer officials and simplify background investigations.

His paper says "the Senate should stop confirming any deputy secretaries, undersecretaries, assistant secretaries, deputy undersecretaries, bureau heads, general counsels, and chief financial officers."

He suggests that by reserving confirmation for Cabinet secretaries, heads of independent agencies and inspectors general, Congress would "preserve the Senate's constitutional role in confirming genuinely senior administration officials."

The current system "serves the American people very badly," he added in an interview. He argues that the sluggishness of the process damages the process of government, and makes it hard to define and implement government policy.

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