My concept of public service was framed by the civics of “Schoolhouse Rock”: A president nominates men and women who have particular skills and experience that qualify them to hold specific government positions. Backgrounds and references are checked, nominations are submitted, and the Senate consents or not to confirmation. The process is straightforward, civil, expeditious and based on merit.
Like so much else from the “Schoolhouse Rock” era, this concept is now laughably naive. Cabinet nominees get most of the focus as well as most of the flak, but those willing to offer themselves for consideration for lesser posts — there are 1,242 Senate-confirmed federal jobs, from marine mammal commissioner to Hospital Insurance Trust Fund trustee to Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board member — are increasingly hostages to a confirmation process run amok. To some extent, the problem is political: Appointments are one way senators can fight a president from the other party. But the problem is also bureaucratic: Overwhelmed and understaffed federal agencies are doing a very poor job vetting so many candidates in an efficient way. Many wait months and sometimes years for consideration, if they are ever considered at all. One Obama administration ambassadorial nominee died more than two years into the process, with her nomination still in limbo.
We don’t often hear from those whose nominations wither on the vine, even though there are more and more that do. It’s frustrating and humiliating, but you don’t want to be seen as a whiner or a loser. There’s always the possibility of a “next time,” and in any case, you are essentially powerless to do anything about the process. But a new cycle of nominations at all levels is about to begin, and some may want to know what the meat grinder is like from the point of view of the piece of meat.
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After the 2008 election, I was nominated and confirmed for the position of assistant secretary of defense for public affairs — the first openly gay individual to be confirmed for a senior position at the Pentagon. At that time, Democrats controlled Congress, and the process was relatively quick and painless, though it involved filling out many forms about my past activities. I concluded my Defense Department service in 2012.
Late the following year, a State Department appointee approached me regarding my potential interest in a Democratic vacancy on the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy , a small bipartisan board that, since 1948, has been charged with advising the administration and Congress on the effectiveness of U.S. public-diplomacy activities. As with other government commissions, its positions are uncompensated and part-time; they offer opportunities for qualified citizens to apply their talents for public benefit.
I expected things to unfold relatively smoothly. My previous confirmation process had been straightforward, I was not being nominated for a senior or controversial position, and it was an unpaid slot, designated for a Democrat. I had been thoroughly investigated only a few years back for the Pentagon job, and tradition called for my being paired with a Republican commission nominee for confirmation purposes.
I thought I was qualified for the position. Public diplomacy has been a passionate interest of mine ever since I served as a young Foreign Service information officer with the now-defunct U.S. Information Agency (USIA). I was press officer at the U.S. Embassy in London during the Iran hostage crisis. In the early 1990s, I served as director of congressional affairs at the USIA and coordinated major conferences designed to connect a new crop of political and civil-society leaders in post-apartheid South Africa and the emerging nations of the former Soviet Union with their U.S. counterparts. I worked with former senator Gary Hart (on whose presidential campaign I had served) and former defense secretary William Cohen to lead more than a dozen gatherings of such leaders, more than 400 men and women in total, from across the globe. More recently, I spearheaded a nonpartisan initiative to assess risk for public-diplomacy practitioners and other civilians working on behalf of the United States in hostile foreign environments. The initiative was introduced two years ago at a U.S. Institute of Peace forum co-sponsored by the McCain Institute, the Truman National Security Project — and the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy .
Political officials, career employees and retired investigative agents working on contract for numerous government agencies all play a part in the investigations of nominees’ backgrounds. Mine was led by FBI and State Department Bureau of Diplomatic Security background checkers, and it included counterparts from the Office of Personnel Management (which oversees much of the background paperwork), the Office of Government Ethics (which makes sure there are no conflicts of interest), and the White House legal and personnel departments (which ensure that administration nominees have no hidden land mines in their pasts).
At the beginning, I was told by one of the lead sherpas — a career field investigator — to update all my previous Pentagon paperwork quickly and to get my financial and reference ducks in order, as I would be a “presidential priority for quick confirmation.”
But as I soon learned, “update” didn’t mean, “Just tell us what you’ve been doing since the recent full investigation we did on you a few years ago.” It really meant, “While you’re at it, go back 10 years or more just to make sure,” as if I had never served or been investigated before. My references — past bosses, co-workers, friends and family members typically interviewed by government security agents — rearranged their schedules to accommodate new background interviews. These were conducted as if the first set had never happened. I was taken aback when a longtime California friend reported that the interviewer told her, “I don’t like Democrats.” I was embarrassed when a former Washington employer told me that three different background checkers were calling him. The one he agreed to see turned out to be a retired contract agent so elderly and frail he needed help walking down the hall, and, in the course of the interview, he asked my friend, “Will Mr. Wilson return to service with Senator Hart?,” who had by then been out of office for almost 30 years. Additional time was lost because I work pro bono on a veterans initiative I co-founded; the Office of Government Ethics couldn’t understand the pro bono arrangement — there wasn’t a box on its form for what I was doing.
After 21 months, the background vetting ended in the summer of 2015, and my information was sent to the White House for final clearance. By the fall of 2015, my name still had not been sent to the Senate, and no one in the White House would answer my questions about the delay. Over Thanksgiving, I finally received a call from a legal office functionary who suggested that one activity I had listed on my forms — providing periodic foreign policy advice for the presidential campaign of former co-worker and longtime friend Martin O’Malley — “could be” a key reason for the stall. O’Malley withdrew from the race in February, and I was suddenly cleared for nomination in March 2016.
The State Department circulated papers to all members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and made me available to meet with any and all. Only one senator’s staffer took up the offer. I then met with Republican and Democratic committee staffers. They all declared me fit for the position, with Republican staff members telling me after the interview that I was one of the most qualified people they’d seen for the commission. After waiting the requisite 10 days, I would then be placed on the Senate Executive Calendar if there were no objections or holds. There weren’t, and I was.
So it was much to my surprise that there was no Republican to pair me with. That’s because the nominee for the Republican vacancy on the commission had been confirmed a few weeks earlier. Unhappy that she had been on the confirmation wait list for a year, Republicans sent her through as part of a package deal with Democratic nominees for a different government entity, rather than wait a couple of weeks until I was cleared to join her in a bipartisan confirmation waltz down the Senate aisle. I would just have to wait for another package to be negotiated between the administration and the Senate. And wait. And wait.
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I will always be grateful for the many people who pushed the Senate leadership on my behalf during that time: Republican and Democratic staffers from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; past and present Republican and Democratic members of the commission; senators from both parties, including Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who used my candidacy in a speech on the Senate floor exhorting her colleagues to break the political logjam and allow noncontroversial nominees with bipartisan support to go through.
I thought I saw a light at the end of the tunnel when the majority leader’s office hotlined my nomination one late summer evening, only to be deflated after midnight when an unnamed senator objected. His problem, a State Department congressional liaison was told, seemed to be that the other candidates and I were all Democratic political nominees.
In a Hail Mary final effort last month, supporters again called the Senate leadership offices to weigh in. A staffer told one: “A Democrat? No way!” (The position is reserved for a Democrat.) Another was given a catch-22 answer: “He needs to be paired, and he’s not paired.” Congress out. Game over.
A new administration will now begin selecting, vetting and nominating people willing to apply their talents to public service. In theory, with the White House and the Senate unified politically, the process should be easier. But there are many dozens of positions on bipartisan commissions and committees that have been designated for Americans of both parties. And senators can still block nominations without furnishing an explanation or even identifying themselves. If we want these positions to be filled by experienced and talented people, we need political leaders who will focus on nominee qualifications and ignore the rest — and we need a government that checks their backgrounds more quickly.
I still feel strongly about public diplomacy, about ways to recruit and retain a new generation of Americans in the mold of the late ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens: young men and women willing to work in hostile environments and engage with foreign publics. But to try again through this broken process? It’s not worth it.