IT SHOULD come as no great surprise to anyone that a new Senate study on federal regulation singles out the quality of presidential appointments as a basic key to the quality of government regulation. Anyone who has watched the operations of the administrative agencies down through the years knows that. But it may be useful to have that obvious fact underlined right now because a new administration pledged to improving the quality of federal regulators has just taken office.
Indeed, it might be useful for some of President Carter's associates to browse a little in the first volume of this study prepared for the Senate Committee on Government Operations. It will give them an idea of some of the problems they face in making his campaign promises come true. Other Presidents have entertained hopes - or at least talked as if they did - of improving the regulatory process. Remember the Hoover Commission in 1949, the Landis report in 1960, and the Ash report in 1970? Each of those reports made the same point that this new one does. Appointments to regulatory commissions, the Hoover Commission said, "were sometimes below desirable standards." There has been "a deterioration in the quality" of regulatory appointments since World War II, Mr. Landis wrote. "The attraction and retention of highly qualified personnel poses a signficant problem for the regulatory agencies," said the Ash Council.
There is, however, a difference. This study has produced some evidence on how some federal regulators actually got their jobs. President Kennedy, for instance, appointed Ashton Barnett to the Maritime Commission not because he knew something about shipping (Mr. Barnett had operated a dry cleaning business) but because Sen. James O. Eastland wanted him appointment. President Nixon picked Alexander Butterfield to head the Federal Aviation Administration not because he was particularly qualified for it or even because he sought it, but because H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman decided that was a good way to get him out of the White House. The list of such appointments runs on. In some instances, a President got a better regulator than he had any right to expect, given the way in which the appointment was made. In others, the quality of the regulator was disastrously low.
The study is full of ideas on how to improve the situation - from recommendations on how the President should go about finding candidates to suggestions on how the conflict of interest laws should be changed. But its fundamental message is the one delivered much more tersely by Mr. Landis to President-elect Kennedy in 1960. "Good men can made poor laws workable; poor men will wreak havoc with good laws." Therein lies the secret of quality government regulation. If the country is ever to get it, it must first have a President who wants it badly enough to be prepared to spend some of his political capital to get it.