Political obstruction bipartisanship creates a recess mess

Saturday, April 3, 2010; A10

RECESS APPOINTMENTS are one of Washington's most flagrant illustrations of situational ethics. When a Republican president bypasses the objections of Democratic senators to install a nominee, Democrats cry foul, while Republicans claim the president's hand was forced by the opposition's obstructionism. When the situation is reversed -- a Democrat in the White House and Republicans bottling up nominations -- so, too, are the dueling protestations of outrage and necessity.

Thus, five years ago, Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) was describing President Bush's choice to install John Bolton as the United Nations ambassador as "the president's prerogative." Last weekend, after President Obama issued his first batch of recess appointments, Mr. McCain displayed less solicitude for presidential authority: "This administration chose to ignore the questions and concerns and instead forced their will on the American people," he said. Of course, the that-was-then approach to recess appointments is bipartisan. When Vice President Biden was Sen. Biden, and one of Mr. Bolton's chief critics, he termed that recess appointment "an abuse of power." When President Obama was Sen. Obama, he said the move made Mr. Bolton "damaged goods."

We are no fans of recess appointments, but Mr. Obama's decision to resort to the maneuver is understandable. It's probably no coincidence that, by this point in his term, Mr. Bush had named 15 recess appointees -- precisely the same number Mr. Obama named last Saturday. The difference is that at this point Mr. Bush had five nominees awaiting action on the Senate floor; Mr. Obama had 77. The 15 recess appointees had been waiting an average of 214 days for confirmation; the shortest time was 144 days. These sorts of delays are intolerable. As we have said during both Democratic and Republican administrations, presidents should have broad leeway in choosing how to staff their administrations. Holding up nominees for reasons entirely unrelated to their qualifications is particularly odious. So is leaving important boards without a quorum and key posts unfilled.

The administration bears its own responsibility for the fact that some key posts remain unfilled. Its handling of the nominees to head the Transportation Security Administration has been particularly bumbling. And it chose to wait out the legislative fight over health care before announcing a nominee for the critical position of director of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. Despite this dawdling, its eventual choice, Dr. Donald Berwick, a highly regarded Harvard University health policy expert, deserves swift consideration. Supporters and opponents of the new health-care legislation ought to be able to agree that leaving the agency without a confirmed head is not healthy.

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