After Britain's election, a quick transition. Why can't we be so speedy?

By Al Kamen
Sunday, May 16, 2010

Britain's May 6 elections swept the Conservatives into power for the first time in 13 years. After a few days of negotiations to form a coalition government, here's how the transition itself took place:

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Gordon Brown stepped out of 10 Downing Street, went to Buckingham Palace and told Queen Elizabeth he was resigning. Minutes later, Conservative leader David Cameron visited Her Majesty, accepted the position of prime minister and then walked into 10 Downing. Done.

The larger government transition -- which over there means moving in a score of cabinet secretaries from Parliament to run the major departments and selecting about 80 junior ministers -- was essentially completed by Friday. The powerful career civil service stays pretty much in place. The process is "brutally quick and quite unsentimental," as one British observer remarked to me.

Here in the World's Greatest Democracy, meanwhile, the Obama administration's transition, which began 16 months ago, drags on. In fact, in terms of moving new people into the top jobs, it will never end. That's because by the time the administration finally fills all of the most important positions, maybe sometime next year, many of the first appointees will be rotating out. (The average time in those jobs is 2 1/2 years.)

Why are we so slow compared with our stodgy cousins across the pond? You can blame the founding fathers and their troublesome "advice and consent" clause, which requires that the Senate approve presidential appointees to Cabinet departments and executive agencies.

President Ronald Reagan, in his first year, filled 255 of the 295 top positions in the departments and agencies. The next few presidents filled them at a comparable pace. No president did better until President Obama last year filled 272 such positions.

The problem, however, is that as government has grown over the years, so has the number of positions needing Senate confirmation -- from 295 in the Reagan administration to 422 in the Obama administration, according to a recent report by the Center for American Progress. So while Reagan filled 86 percent of the top jobs in his first year, Obama filled 64 percent, leaving vacant some critical antiterrorism and health posts.

Efforts over the years to adopt the obvious remedy -- that is, reduce the number of Senate-confirmed political appointees -- have failed. Presidents, eager to "control" the bureaucracy and to reward their supporters, are loathe to cut the number. Senators, determined to exercise their constitutional prerogative (and to ensure that their states get the earmarks and government contracts they surely deserve) demand to vote on far too many appointees.

Besides, bedeviling the new administration's nominees has become cathartic for some in the Senate. British minority party members, after all, get to yell at the prime minister in person. And they feel better afterward. In the United States, opposition party members in the Senate can hold the president's nominees hostage, and it makes them feel good, too.

The White House can't select, vet and nominate people fast enough to fill the top jobs by the end of its first year. The Senate simply can't push that many people through its clearance, hearing and approval process. "The system can't handle such a large number" of nominees, concludes New York University professor Paul Light.

The pig has gotten too big for the python.

So what to do?

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