We need executive branch nomination reform. Now more than ever.
For now, the deal to avert a nuclear crisis in the Senate is holding. Gina McCarthy’s nomination easily achieved cloture; meanwhile, after squeaking through a 60-40 cloture vote, new Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez was confirmed by a straight party-line vote, 54-46.
Problem solved? Nope. As NPR’s Carrie Johnson tweets: “With confirmation of Tom Perez, @thejusticedept now lacks Senate confirmed leaders for Criminal, National Security, Civil Rights posts.” As far as I can tell, that’s because Obama hasn’t sent anyone up yet.
Nor has anyone been nominated, still, to be administrator of the Small Business Administration. The problem is government-wide, as a good story on all the gaps at the Department of Homeland Security showed last week.
It’s usually hard to tie any particular effect to leaving acting officials in place, but overall it means less responsiveness to the president, less ability to overcome bureaucratic inertia . . . less of what Alexander Hamilton called “energy in the executive.” It means a less successful presidency.
Two things here. First, Barack Obama just hasn’t placed a high enough priority on keeping these important slots filled.
Second, there’s also a systematic failure here. In addition to problems at the Senate floor stage, there’s also failure all the way down the line. In particular, the amount of vetting people need to put up with in order to qualify for these positions has become insane.
As I’ve been saying for some time now: We need reform! Presidents and the Senate need to back off and realize that the risks of someone sneaking through with some sort of appearance of conflict of interest or other such problems need to be balanced by the costs of knocking perfectly good people out of the pool because they aren’t willing or able to survive massively intrusive disclosure requirements. Presidents, in particular, need to realize that the danger that a nomination will be derailed or someone already confirmed will become a problem because someone digs up some decades-old embarrassment just isn’t worth worrying about.
I’ve suggested that this is exactly the kind of reform that a commission is good for. Why? Because no one wants to relax current standards; no one wants to admit that it doesn’t really matter if a bunch of jobs don’t have a full security check, or that no one should care about some former positions which could somehow be construed as conflicts of interest. So put together a group charged with deciding the minimum necessary background checks for various different job categories, implement their recommendations, and then blame them when something goes wrong.
Otherwise, presidents — Obama included — are simply giving away a substantial part of their presidency. It’s unfair to those who supported the president, bad for effective government and bad for democracy. Reform executive branch nominations now!