It was just a routine presidential appointment to a low-visibility federal agency, not one of those reporters-in-the-driveway-and-cameras-in-the-Senate- Judiciary-Committee-room nominations. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation is barely on most radar screens in Washington, let alone beyond the Beltway. So when President Clinton nominated Anne L. Hall to the five-member FDIC board on Nov. 30, 1993, the nomination made no news.
Hall's professional and political credentials were impeccable. She was the vice president for corporate affairs at a large Ohio bank and, though a Republican herself, was the daughter of a former Democratic member of Congress. Less than three months later, the Senate Banking Committee approved her nomination and sent her name to the full Senate -- lightning fast by contemporary standards. Not a word of criticism was spoken against her.
Then, nothing. Throughout the spring and summer, she waited, wondering what to do. Should she withdraw from her bank work in Ohio? Should she plan her move to Washington? Should the bank start looking for her replacement? So many questions -- all legitimate, all so unnecessary -- and no one willing to answer them. After almost a year in limbo, an exasperated Hall re-took control of her life and withdrew her nomination.
At first blush, it is easy to dismiss Hall's experience, to say that Bill Clinton is gone, that the nastiness has gone with him, that George W. Bush and his bare Senate majority will be able to put a Republican team in place as fast as you can say "tax cut." But the slowdown on presidential appointments isn't merely a Clinton problem: Ten weeks of the Bush administration have now passed, and only two dozen appointees (primarily the Cabinet secretaries and several undersecretaries) have been confirmed. Good people at the White House are hard at work, finding candidates for the nearly 500 positions that require Senate confirmation. They will soon discover that the appointment process has become a monster that even their best efforts won't slay.
We elect presidents to govern, to implement an agenda. But no president can do this alone. And if it takes a new president the better part of a year to get his team on the field, then elections lose some of their meaning as instruments for changing the course of government. Though anxious to manage the presidency more efficiently than his predecessor, Bush has quickly learned that the appointment process is indiscriminate in the frustrations it brings.
When the full Senate Governmental Affairs Committee holds a two-day hearing this week on the appointment process, it's important for the committee members to hear the unvarnished truth: The nomination system is a national disgrace. It encourages bullies and emboldens demagogues, silences the voices of responsibility, and nourishes the lowest forms of partisan combat. It uses innocent citizens as pawns in politicians' petty games and stains the reputations of good people. It routinely violates fundamental democratic principles, undermines the quality and consistency of public management, and breaches simple decency. Democrats and Republicans, legislators and chief executives, journalists and special interests all share responsibility for allowing one of the rare and genuine inventions of American political creativity to fall into a shameful state of malignancy.
Hall might be Exhibit A for all that's wrong with the presidential appointment process, except there are so many others just like her. The delay had nothing to do with her, nor even with the FDIC. It was the result of a partisan decision to hold Clinton appointments hostage until Senate Democrats agreed to hearings on the Whitewater affair. Hall was an innocent victim of Washington politics -- but a victim nonetheless.
Hall, at least, escaped without becoming fodder for the front pages. That's more than one might say for Henry Foster (a Clinton nominee for surgeon general who withdrew in the face of a threatened filibuster) or Linda Chavez (a Bush nominee for labor secretary who was the latest to run afoul of the rules regarding household help) and many others like them. All had distinguished reputations in careers ranging from medicine to real estate to advocacy. All agreed to accept their country's call to public service, even at significant financial sacrifice. All were chewed up and abused by an appointment process that too often treats good people as little more than meat for the wolves of Washington's political wars.
And here's the saddest, most damning consequence: An unsuspecting nation has no idea what it has lost.
A few telling statistics show that, in the modern era of presidential appointments, it doesn't much matter whether a Republican or a Democrat occupies the Oval Office. The time required to fill presidentially appointed positions at the beginning of new administrations has expanded steadily over the past 40 years -- from 2.4 months in the Kennedy administration to more than eight months at the start of the first Bush and Clinton administrations. The trend line is consistent, even when the president and the Senate are from the same party.
Between 1964 and 1984, one of every 20 nominees reported spending more than six months in the appointment process, according to a 1985 survey. But for those who served between 1984 and 1999, the proportion had shrunk to almost one in three, according to a study last year by the Presidential Appointee Initiative at the Brookings Institution, which I serve as an adviser. The nomination ordeal repels the successful and creative people needed to run a modern government. For many positions, it now takes six months to a year just to find someone willing to serve.
Turndowns are an increasingly common phenomenon, even though many of these jobs are among the most prestigious and exciting in the world. Some people say they simply don't want to go through the often humiliating and potentially agonizing FBI field investigation -- did you ever use drugs? did you ever see a marriage counselor? -- required of all appointees. Some go through all the investigations and questionnaires, enduring the scrutiny of their tax records and employment history and personal lives, then withdraw their nominations after months "in the process," exhausted by the seemingly endless delays.
Laurence Pope, a distinguished diplomat in his fourth decade of service, was nominated in February 2000 to be ambassador to Kuwait. The staff of the Foreign Relations Committee was unhappy about some statements made by one of Pope's former bosses, and by Pope's refusal to repudiate those statements. When it became clear that no hearings would be scheduled to permit Pope to explain his position -- and that his nomination was therefore DOA -- he withdrew and resigned from the diplomatic corps. Pope recounted his experience in the April 2001 issue of the Foreign Service Journal and concluded: "It's clearly wrong to reject a nominee without giving him or her the opportunity to rebut a whispering campaign, and it's particularly damaging in an institutional sense to hold career officers to account for loyal service. That's a quick way to kill the tradition of a career Foreign Service capable of serving loyally across administrations."
Turnover has become as much of a drag on a president's ability to lead as turndowns. A 1994 GAO report examined turnover in 567 Executive Schedule positions from 1981 to 1991 (during the Reagan and Bush administrations). In the 409 positions with no fixed term of office, the incumbents' median length of service was only 2.1 years. Appointees in eight departments had median tenures of less than two years; the lowest was 1.6 years.
Constant turnover, a high rate of turndowns and a slow appointment process has made vacancies a prominent feature of the contemporary Washington landscape. During the spring of 1997, at the start of Clinton's second term, nearly 250 of the U.S. government's 726 most senior jobs -- more than a third -- were unfilled. One of every eight federal judgeships was vacant. The Federal Elections Commission was unable to get a quorum for much of 1998. The Food and Drug Administration had no commissioner for 18 months during Clinton's second term. Could anyone reasonably argue that this is a sensible way to manage a large and complex government?
Once a president and his aides locate willing appointees, the process too often mistreats -- some would say abuses -- them. William Gould was a Stanford law professor and an eminent labor lawyer when he agreed to be President Clinton's nominee to head the National Labor Relations Board in 1993. He dutifully informed the Stanford administration that he would take a leave from his teaching post and began making arrangements to move to Washington. Some opponents of his views circulated charges that he had run up large gambling debts. The rumors were unfounded, but putting them to rest took several weeks of "investigation" during which he heard little from the White House and almost nothing from the Senate. His appointment languished for 10 months before he was confirmed.
This was no aberration. Anthony Lake, nominated by Clinton to head the CIA in December 1996, withdrew in protest three months later. After Republican opponents had asked to examine all of his FBI background checks, going back to his service in the Nixon administration, Lake said he concluded there would be no end to the process. "Washington has gone haywire," he wrote in a scathing withdrawal letter to Clinton. He described the contemporary nomination as little more than a "political football in a game with constantly moving goal posts." The process, he said, is "nasty and brutish without being short."
Lake meant his letter as a wake-up call to official Washington. His nomination was not in danger of defeat, he said, but he could not abide the "political circus" any longer. Unfortunately, the impact of his protest soon faded. Bush's nominees may not face the kind of grueling scrutiny that goes along with an appointment to head the CIA, but they will soon be subject to a process that has become absurd in its length and misguided in its purpose.
Imagine this: You are a leader in your field. You are aggressively recruited to run a large corporation. The corporation's hiring committee tells you that it has chosen you after a nationwide search because it admires your vision of what the company can become. This is a job you've been seeking, so you're eager to start and you begin thinking about the kinds of people you'll need to recruit to make your vision a reality. But then the hiring committee says, "Oh, by the way, did we mention that all of your top personnel choices will have to be approved by a committee that includes some of your worst enemies, any one of whom can blackball any of your selections?" Who would be willing to run a company under those conditions? Who would be willing to be held accountable for its performance?
Yet that is precisely the situation that President Bush, like all modern American presidents, now faces. He has a far smaller margin in the Senate than Clinton had at the outset of his first term. The American people will hold Bush accountable for his leadership, but he will be operating in a system that routinely constrains his freedom to pick his management team. The original premise of the Framers of the Constitution -- that it's the Senate's job to "advise and consent" on presidential choices -- has been perverted by the "game" that Lake so aptly described.
It is also undermining the character of government itself. A singular feature of the American political system is that elections provide fresh infusions of new blood for the body politic. Whatever cost this approach might impose in diminished professionalism and inconsistencies in administration, the theory goes, it is more than outweighed by the constant replenishment of energy and enthusiasm.
Perhaps that was once the case. But no longer. Today most presidential appointments offer little in the way of new blood. Instead, our government is now largely run by a governing class. A growing majority of appointees these days come from the Washington metropolitan area, especially from think tanks, congressional staffs, and special interest groups and trade associations. A joint study by Paul C. Light of the Brookings Institution and Virginia L. Thomas of the Heritage Foundation, conducted for the Presidential Appointee Initiative, found that 58 percent of nominees in the past three administrations were working inside the Beltway when they were chosen, double the percentage from 1933 to 1964.
It is past time to rebuild and reinvigorate the way that executive and judicial appointees are reviewed and confirmed. For too long we have turned away from the excesses of the appointment process, accepting them as the inevitabilities of high-stakes politics. The Senate must take a hard look at these irrational procedures to see what is now so obvious: They are more cumbersome, more contentious, more repellent to talented Americans, and more distant from the purposes of good government than they have ever been. All of us, not just those nominees who have lost their patience or their reputations, are their victims. G. Calvin Mackenzie is professor of American government at Colby College and an adviser to the Presidential Appointee Initiative of the Brookings Institution.