THE SHOCK of the Sept. 11 attacks ought to make the nation face up to a long-running scandal: the broken presidential appointments process. Amid all the talk of retooling the government to counter terrorist attacks, fixing the byzantine rules under which senior administration officials are appointed and confirmed must surely make the short list of priorities. No organization can be expected to function well when a fifth of its top positions are vacant, as is now estimated to be the case in the Bush administration. The Sept. 11 commission, which is due to suggest improvements to the nation's defenses by July 26, should include fixing the appointments gridlock among its recommendations.
The link between that gridlock and national security is clear from the record at the Defense Department. When President Bush took office in 2001, the Senate confirmed Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld promptly, along with other Cabinet-level appointees. But it was nearly six weeks into the new administration before Deputy Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz was confirmed, and after that the process was glacial. The secretary of the Navy and the secretary of the Army were not sworn into office until late May; the assistant secretary for international security policy was not confirmed until Aug. 6. The position of assistant secretary for special operations and low-intensity conflict, traditionally the Pentagon's key overseer of counterterrorism, was vacant on Sept. 11. Meanwhile, national security positions in other agencies were also empty. According to Paul C. Light of the Brookings Institution, half of such posts were vacant two months before Sept. 11.
The fault for this mess is spread between the administration, which is slow to come up with nominees and excessively cautious in the checks it runs on their backgrounds, and the Senate, which adds its own variety of snail-like risk-aversion. If there is to be reform, the two sides need to put aside their jealousies and work together. Possible changes include cutting the number of jobs that require confirmation, limiting senators' right to place "holds" on candidates (often to extract concessions from the administration or from Senate colleagues that have nothing to do with the merits of the nominee) and adopting a target for confirmation of 45 or 60 days after a nominee is sent to the Senate.
Short of those reforms, the two branches could make nominees' life easier by harmonizing and streamlining the disclosures required of them. At present, candidates for office have to fill out one pile of paperwork from the White House and a separate one from the Senate, even though each goes over roughly the same ground. They have to list their foreign trips, even brief ones to Canada or Mexico, and give reasons in each case; they have to provide birthplaces of their spouses' parents.
With each presidential cycle, reasonable voices call for an overhaul of this system. But nothing is done, and so the gridlock tightens. The average time required to install a political appointee at the start of a new administration has shot up from 2.4 months in the Kennedy administration to 8.5 months now. It will go on getting worse unless something forces sane reform. The Sept. 11 commission should aspire to be that something.