By all measures, the federal appointments process is broken and urgently needs substantial reform. No matter which party occupies the Oval Office, the process takes months longer than anyone thinks is necessary. For their first year, new administrations are without a full “team” of senior and policy officials to attend to our nation’s problems and opportunities; the burden on nominees to gather background data could not be more unnecessarily burdensome if designed to be so; the Senate and federal agencies are delayed in vetting nominees by the need to collect background data that has already been collected by the White House; and nominees for support positions and senior-most positions are subject to virtually the same level of scrutiny.
About 1,400 positions appointed by the president require the advice and consent of the Senate. The large number of these positions and the broken process by which nominees are considered for confirmation cause long delays. As many as one-third of presidentially appointed positions, particularly at the subcabinet level, go unfilled at a given time, depriving many agencies of key officials. These vacancies are particularly problematic during the first year of an administration, when a president is trying to deliver on his campaign promises.
For the past year we have co-chaired a 20-member bipartisan commission to reform the federal appointments process, with the support of the Rockefeller Foundation and the Aspen Institute. We have worked with representatives of the Senate, White House and government agencies to consider measures to expedite the appointments process without diminishing the attention paid to nominees’ qualifications.
This week the Senate has an opportunity to dramatically improve this unwieldy process. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and majority and minority leaders of the committees on rules and homeland security and government affairs, have introduced the Presidential Appointment Efficiency and Streamlining Act of 2011 (S.679).
The bill calls for about 200 non-policymaking, non-senior positions to no longer require Senate confirmation. Because the Constitution gives the Senate the responsibility to advise and consent to presidential appointments, critics have argued that our plan represents a transfer of power from Congress to the executive branch. But this bill involves no such transfer: It does not diminish the institutional influence of the Senate, which would retain the power to advise on and consent to the appointment of all 1,200 policymaking and senior officials, including those to whom the appointees affected by S.679 report. Additionally, the Senate would still help set high standards for all government functions and programs and use hearings, reports to Congress, and reports from agency inspectors general and the Government Accountability Office to help hold offices accountable for performing to expectations.
Because these 200 positions would no longer require Senate confirmation, new administrations would be able to more quickly install the 70 or so communications and operations people that new department heads need to work effectively with Congress, the public, state and local governments.
The legislation would also allow the Senate to confirm or deny the appointment of more senior officials earlier in new administrations, as senators would have more time and resources to consider nominees.
The bill calls for creation of a working group to develop plans to improve the manner and speed with which background data are collected from nominees to lessen the burden on nominees themselves and make the information available to vetting organizations as soon as possible. Tools and capacities emanating from this work would make it possible for the Senate to receive nominees’ background information at the time of nomination, instead of weeks later. The vetting process could commence much sooner, again increasing the Senate’s capacity to confirm nominees early in new administrations.
The federal appointments process will not remedy itself. Concerted action and bipartisan leadership are required to end delays that have become unjustifiable. Other reforms are possible and welcome, but as soon as possible the Senate should pass S.679 for the benefit of this and future administrations but, most important, for our country.
Bill Frist is a former Republican senator from Tennessee. Charles S. Robb is a former Democratic senator from Virginia. Thomas F. “Mack” McLarty was White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration. Clay Johnson was White House director of personnel in the George W. Bush administration.