A year from Thursday, the next president of the United States will take the oath of office, ushering in a new era for the country--and possibly beginning a nightmare gantlet for thousands of people seeking government jobs.

No matter which party wins, the new bureaucrat wannabes may experience many months of "isolation, endless review, personal expense and unrelenting media scrutiny," says Paul Light of the Brookings Institution. "Those who survive . . . enter office frustrated and fatigued" after getting through what's become "an almost insurmountable obstacle course."

Little wonder, he concludes in a recent paper, that more and more people seem to be turning down presidential recruiters, saying it's not worth the hassle. Others agree to serve and then back out because of delays and costs. There are indications that recruiters are drafting third-raters for the top jobs. (Just what we need, frustrated and fatigued losers running the government.)

For years, virtually everyone involved, Republicans and Democrats alike, has agreed something must be done to improve the appointments process. And nothing ever happens.

Things have gotten so bad that a private group, Brookings, funded by a foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, is trying to help. Pew put down $3.6 million for Brookings, which will use partner think tanks and organizations to set up the Presidential Appointee Initiative.

It's a decidedly bipartisan affair. Fannie Mae chief Franklin Raines, a Clintonite, and former GOP senator Nancy Kassebaum Baker are chairing the effort, and folks like Ginny Thomas at the Heritage Foundation are working on research projects.

Some causes of appointment delays--White House ineptitude or increased use of Senate "holds" to make statements about nominees and unrelated issues--are political and can't be affected by the project.

But other problems, such as reducing endless, needlessly complex and duplicative questionnaires, might be alleviated. And there is a second goal: making the process less stressful to the appointees, who are left out there all alone, with no guidance.

As they go through the process, bewildered candidates often ask: "What's happening to me?" Light said, but there's no one to call for an answer. And while the press tends to focus on problems with high-profile nominees, the ones most frustrated are the least controversial, the ones who simply get lost in a "thicket of forms, clearances and delays."

So the University of Maryland and the Baker Institute at Rice are assembling special software to help appointees fill out the various financial disclosure forms. And the Council for Excellence in Government will publish an Appointee Desk Reference, or nominee survival guide, with answers to just about every question a nominee might have, including "most notably advice on how to handle the media."

That's an easy one: Just tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth--on the record.

T.J. in Need of Hacker-Cracker

The Library of Congress's "Thomas" Web site was back up and running yesterday, a day after computer hackers got into the popular site and forced it to close down.

On Monday, people looking for information about bills on "Thomas" found instead things like "Lamers Team," and "U.S. Congress Web site --defeated!" and other juvenile stuff.

Yesterday, the site, named for Thomas Jefferson, was doing fine. And it included a prominently featured new item: a want ad featuring news about "information technology jobs available at the Library of Congress." Folks who know about computer security perhaps?

Philadelphia, Del.?

Seems Senate members are especially skilled in creative geography. Vermont Democrat Patrick J. Leahy wanted puny Lake Champlain declared a sixth Great Lake a while back. And his fellow Vermonter, Republican James M. Jeffords, moved Montpelier a bit closer to Boston. Now Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) seems to be getting in on the act.

Santorum's statewide reelection bus tour won't be stopping in Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Daily News reported. Is this a deliberate move to avoid the heart of the Democrats' base in the state? A snub, perhaps?

Santorum says not. "We're trying to get into every media market," he told the Daily News. "We're going to Chester; Chester's Philadelphia!" Maybe in terms of media markets. Actually, Chester is a town of 42,000 about 15 miles south of Philadelphia.

Grand Tour Over, Now the Work

Lawmakers are starting to wind up their recess activities and get ready for the new session. Sources say Sens. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) and Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah) and spouses have just returned from a very fine jaunt of about 12 days in Lisbon, Madrid, Granada, Tunis and Rabat. Apparently nothing heavy was lifted.

Moving On

Shay Bilchik, who had worked for Attorney General Janet Reno for many years in Florida and is now administrator of the Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, is leaving in February to be executive director of the Child Welfare League of America.