THERE IS ONE recommendation in the report from the Sept. 11 commission that ought to be implemented quickly but that risks being forgotten. The existing presidential appointments system, which causes large numbers of executive-branch slots to stand vacant, needs to be overhauled. No government can function well when a fifth of its top positions are empty, as is estimated to be the case in the Bush administration. And the precise design of the national security bureaucracy will be of secondary importance six months from now if a new administration is unable to get its appointees installed. The time to address this problem is now, before the election, because in a sane appointments system this would also be the time both candidates would prepare their national security teams for confirmation.
The significance of the appointments process to national security is clear from the story of 2001. When President Bush took office, Cabinet-level appointees were confirmed promptly, the deputy-secretary level took six weeks or so, and after that things slowed to a crawl. Two months before Sept. 11, half of the posts relating to national security stood empty. The Pentagon position of assistant secretary for special operations and low-intensity conflict, responsible for counterterrorism, was vacant on Sept. 11.
The Sept. 11 commission recommends some fixes for this shambles. Before the election, candidates should submit names of members of their prospective transition teams to the FBI so that they can obtain security clearances immediately after the election. A similar early vetting of likely national security nominees should occur well before the victor's inauguration. The current clearance system, which requires nominees to provide different versions of their information to different gatekeepers, should be centralized and streamlined. The Senate should commit to vote on nominees within 30 days of receiving their names, and it should demand the right to confirm only the top three managerial layers of each executive department. In our view, the Sept. 11 commission could also have urged the Senate to do away with anonymous "holds" on nominees, which allow individual senators to turn the appointments system into a tool for extracting favors from the administration. But the commission's proposals are constructive and ought to be adopted.
If these ideas are neglected now, they're unlikely to be revived later. Once the election is over, the losing party will have an interest in stalling reform, since reform would strengthen the executive. Right now, on the other hand, the stars are propitiously aligned: The polls suggest that both parties have a real chance of capturing the White House, so both have an incentive to fix the system. This is a rare instance of a policy reform that could actually benefit from being carried out in the middle of a horse race.