The Washington Post

Nominees’ paperwork nightmare could end

Waiting for a call from the White House about a job? Keep your accountant on speed-dial — for now. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Are you ready to spend countless hours filling out multiple questionnaires — not to mention thousands of dollars on an accountant to help with your financial disclosure forms?

Don’t despair. There are signs that the absurd and endless paperwork for nominees, required by a mindless one-size-fits-all formula — one form for the covert ops chief at CIA, the same one for the assistant secretary of commerce for widget production — may get more rational.

A bipartisan bill that became law earlier this month streamlines or reduces confirmation requirements for about 30 percent of the positions now needing committee hearings and Senate floor votes.

That should ensure that incoming department heads no longer have that “home alone” problem for weeks or often months waiting for their deputies.

But the new law also establishes a “Working Group on Streamlining Paperwork for Executive Nominations.”

True, these “committees-to-study” most always amount to little more than can-kickers. Still, there’s a bipartisan Senate bloc — from the top leadership down — actually committed to improving the system. (That’s how the bill passed the Senate 79-20 in the first place.)

The working group includes folks from White House personnel, the Office of Personnel Management, FBI and the Office of Government Ethics as well as officials from prior administrations and, one would presume, some people with strong ties to both parties in the Senate.

One goal is to develop a single, basic “smart form” that all nominees would fill out with basic data that would be used by both the Senate and the White House. (Nominees now have to provide duplicate information on different sets of forms.)

Another goal is to accelerate background investigations — which can take four months or more, by seeing if “non-FBI personnel” can be used to conduct most checks.

The legislation asks the working group to explore ways to vary background checks “depending on the sensitivity of the position.” So a narrower check on the widget producer, a broader one for intelligence chiefs.

And the group is to develop an “electronic system” for collecting and distributing information on nominees.

The system is so cumbersome now because everyone involved is afraid they may find out that their nominee for immigration enforcement has a “nanny problem” or that the nominee for tax compliance owes back taxes.

It’s gotten to where “risk avoidance has become more costly than the risk you’re trying to avoid,” observed Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service. The need is to “manage risk, not avoid risk,” he said. “You can’t avoid risk.”

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993.


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