The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The U.S. government is designed for failure. And, a new study shows, it’s getting worse.

Lt. Gen. Laura J. Richardson testifies before a Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing on her nomination to be general and commander of the U.S. Southern Command on Aug. 3. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/AP)
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When President John F. Kennedy took office in 1961, he needed Senate approval for 779 of his appointments.

That was a highly irrational way to run a government.

Sixty years later, despite efforts at reform and widespread recognition of the irrationality, President Biden needs Senate approval for 1,237 positions — an increase of 59 percent, as a new report from the Partnership for Public Service discloses.

We’ve gone from irrational to just plain crazy.

How crazy? The Post and the Partnership are tracking 799 of those positions (leaving out some advisory boards and less essential jobs). As of this week, only 112 of them have been filled.

More than six months into his presidency, in other words — more than an eighth of the way through his term — Biden hardly has the beginning of an executive team in place.

Recently, a visiting diplomat told me he was struck by the disconnect between Biden’s ambitious rhetoric — about rebuilding alliances, promoting democracy, standing up to China — and his meager agenda. “Where are the policies?” he asked.

This isn’t entirely fair; there are policies. But it’s difficult to put meat on the bones of any agenda without ambassadors, assistant secretaries of state and defense for different regions in the world, and more.

At about this point of every administration, you start to see stories assigning blame for the empty offices. Republicans will ask why Biden has nominated only 323 of the 799. Administration officials would say there’s not much point in stacking up another few hundred nominees for obstructionists such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who has been holding up State Department nominees to grandstand his opposition to the administration’s stance on a Russia-Germany natural gas pipeline.

But the better question is, why do things this way in the first place?

Start with the 4,000 political positions every administration has to fill. This is totally out of line with every other democracy, says Max Stier, who heads the Partnership. It undercuts the professional civil service and promotes a kind of short-term thinking, since the average tenure for Senate-confirmed appointees is about two years.

Unfortunately, most of the challenges facing our society, and so our government, can’t be solved in two years. In 1997, the General Accounting Office cited cyber policy as a high-risk area for the federal government. Are we surprised that, 2½ decades later, it remains so?

Climate change, equipping the government with appropriate technology, retraining the workforce for a changing economy — these all demand long-range thinking. So, as we’ve sadly been reminded, does preparing for public health emergencies.

Requiring that 1,237 of those 4,000 political positions win Senate confirmation compounds the damage.

It discourages qualified people from serving. The Partnership reports that nominees during the Reagan administration waited an average of 56 days to be confirmed. By the Obama and Trump administrations, the waiting time had doubled, to 112 days and 117 days, respectively. And that doesn’t count the excruciating pre-nomination months when prospective appointees are being vetted by the White House.

During the Obama administration, nominees spent a cumulative 452 years bogged down in the confirmation process. Torture for them, but bad for the Senate, too, which has to take time away from legislating.

And debilitating for the government. Even after two years, many of the jobs will be unfilled. According to Vanderbilt University professor David E. Lewis, 30 percent of positions in the past three administrations never received a nomination in the first half of a term.

“I’m not saying you solve this problem and everything else disappears,” Stier says. “But if you don’t solve this problem, everything else stays infinitely harder.”

How do you solve it? You could start by abolishing some of the jobs altogether. One study found an average of 83 layers “between top leadership and essential workers” in federal agencies, the report says. The report found at least 40 positions that have been vacant since June 2016. If we’ve managed this long without anyone in those jobs, let’s take a look at those positions.

But more to the point: The Senate and the executive branch could agree to radically diminish the number of political positions and the number requiring confirmation. Have the change take place in the future, so everyone’s political calculation is uncertain.

The Senate could insist on true accountability: Confirm the truly senior positions, let those officials appoint the teams they want, and then hold those executives responsible for results.

In turn, those executives would have an experienced, empowered civil service to rely on, with institutional memory and long-term commitment.

The country would have a government capable of taking on complex problems.

Imagine the board of directors of a large corporation appointing a new chief executive and then forcing that executive to operate without a team for months and even years.

Shareholders wouldn’t stand for such absurdity. Why should taxpayers?