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

By Al Kamen
Sunday, May 16, 2010; B01

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?

Commentators have long noted that both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue -- the White House to avoid embarrassment, the Senate to embarrass the White House -- have adopted background-check processes worthy of Torquemada.

The burden of proof is on the hapless appointee, who, unlike a repeat criminal, is entitled to no presumption of innocence. The vetters check endlessly for ethical, political, financial and other misdeeds, large or small, relevant to the job or not. These days, if you're qualified to become head of the Fish and Wildlife Service, you're probably smart enough to know it's not worth the hassle, not to mention the thousands of dollars you must shell out to accountants and lawyers to survive the process.

One way to speed things up could be if the Senate, or at least some committees, reaches a general understanding with the White House that, unless a nominee's job has something to do with public finance -- the assistant Treasury secretary for tax policy, for instance -- tax checks in most cases would be general reviews rather than detailed audits. If a nominee has paid approximately the average tax usually paid by someone in his or her income bracket, that would, absent some other concern, end the matter. Interminable investigations of whether a particular deduction was appropriate or whether taxes were always paid on time can't be worth the Senate's energy if the nominee is otherwise qualified to be, say, the assistant secretary for waste management.

The hold craze also must end. Under Senate rules, any senator can temporarily block consideration of a nominee for an indeterminate period of time, and for any reason or no reason at all. If senators think these jobs are so important that they require their approval, then they have an obligation to do something about holds, a chronic and noxious problem that's gotten completely out of hand.

Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) recently introduced a measure that would try to curb holds by requiring them to be made public. That may not, however, make much difference when senators bask in the publicity of holding up a nominee -- or two or 20 -- for the noble purpose of forcing a government agency to give contracts to home-state industries.

In this instance, sunlight would be merely a spotlight, not a disinfectant. Strict time limits on each hold or on the total time a nominee can be held would be much more effective.

Another idea is to have incoming administrations increase the number of appointees who come from the ranks of the career civil service. The president would still select them -- so they would be "his" people in terms of implementing policy -- and the Senate would still confirm them. (This would keep the framers happy.) Career people probably already have the security clearances they'll need, and they rarely make enough money to require lengthy financial checks.

As Colby College government professor Calvin Mackenzie points out, plucking from the civil service is not new. "President Lyndon Johnson wanted to appoint people from the career civil service," Mackenzie said. "They were already there, Johnson reasoned, so they could get right to work."

Another advantage would be that, while the president would not be able to reward quite as many campaign aides, the country might benefit from having more people in top government posts who actually know the issues, the practical options and the unintended consequences of new initiatives. This would also enhance the career service by making the highest jobs available to its members.

This change would not require legislation. And there is precedent for a similar informal arrangement in the selection of ambassadors. While presidents historically have filled about 30 percent of ambassadorships with political supporters, the rest go to career foreign service officers.

These are but a few changes that could improve the way we move from campaigning to governing. The Brits do it faster, but we can do it better.

kamena@washpost.com

Al Kamen, The Washington Post's "In the Loop" columnist, covered the transitions of government for the Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama administrations.

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