Political Appointment Process Broken
H. Rodgin Cohen, “the leading candidate for Deputy Treasury Secretary, has withdrawn from consideration,” George Stephanoupoulous reports. He adds, “Cohen had risen to the top after the withdrawal last week of expected deputy treasury secretary pick Annette Nazareth.”
Something’s wrong with this picture.
To be sure, Cohen wasn’t technically an appointee. Still, as Glenn Reynolds pointed out yesterday, the list of failed appointees is long, including “Chas Freeman, Sanjay Gupta, Annette Nazareth, Tom Daschle, Bill Richardson, Nancy Killefer . . . Judd Gregg . . . [and Anthony] Zinni.”
In our discussion on this topic on last night’s edition of OTB Radio (“Obama’s Appointees Keep Fallin’ Down“) Dave Schuler, who reluctantly voted for Obama despite concerns about his managerial experience, blamed the vetting process whereas I, who reluctantly voted for McCain considering the alternatives, blamed the process itself.
Paul Light wrote about the problem last June. He notes, as I did last night, the sheer scope of the process:
The reality is that the appointments process has been getting later and later with each passing administration. John F. Kennedy had his Cabinet and sub-Cabinet in place by early spring of 1961, Reagan by early fall of 1981, Clinton by early winter of 1992 and George W. Bush by mid-winter of 2002.
There are two reasons for the increasing delay. First, the number of presidential appointees has more than tripled to 3,000-plus over the past 40 years. Roughly 600 of the total are subject to Senate confirmation, which operates on a first-come, first-served basis and can only accommodate so many nominations at a time.
The rest of the 3,000 are “at will” appointees who serve at the president’s pleasure. These alter-ego chiefs of staff and assistant assistants are nearly invisible to the public, but wield enormous influence in the executive branch by acting as closely watched enforcers for the White House agenda. As such, they receive just as much scrutiny in the review process as their much more visible Senate-confirmed bosses.
Second, the process itself is nasty, brutish, and not at all short. Nominees must wait for months as the White House, FBI, IRS, Office of Government Ethics, and Senate inspect the 60 pages of forms that must be filled out on the way to confirmation, including one that still has to be completed by typewriter. The process produces tons of paper, but has almost no bearing on the quality of the nominee.
To be sure, quite a few of the top jobs were filled essentially by acclamation, with several confirmed on or within a week of the inauguration. But there are simply too many confirmable positions and too much room for lobbying and political backstabbing even on “at will” appointments such as Freeman.
There’s got to be a better way.
I was talking recently with a senior European official, who remarked about the fact that so many European officials were in town anxious to talk to their counterparts in the new administration only to find out that, as Drezner points out in a separate post, there’s nobody in those posts yet.
By contrast, Europeans manage to hold elections and bring in not only the new head of government but a functioning ministry within days. It’s harder in the United States, since we don’t have a parliamentary system and thus have no shadow government. But, surely, we could figure out how to appoint 600 people and get them cleared for duty between the second Tuesday in November and noon on January 20th — a period of over ten weeks?
UPDATE: A Senate staffer sends along a floor speech from earlier this week by Lamar Alexander on the subject. Partly, he blames Obama for trying to do too many things at once. But he admits that the process needs to be fixed.
The President has brought on himself some of the difficulty of putting together a team. In addition to having too many balls in the air at once, in my opinion, his standards for hiring sometimes seem to have the effect of disqualifying people who know something about the problem from being hired to solve the problem.
But another part of the President’s difficulty in filling jobs — one that has afflicted every President since Watergate — is the maze of investigations and forms that prospective senior officials must complete and the risk they run that they will be trapped and humiliated and disqualified by an unintentional and relatively harmless mistake.
Washington, DC, has become the only place where you hire a lawyer, an accountant, and an ethics officer before you find a house and put your kid in school.
The motto around here has become: “Innocent until nominated.”
Every legal counsel to every President since Nixon would, I suspect, agree that in the name of effective government, this process needs to be changed. Most have tried to change it, but in Washington style, new regulations pile up on top of old ones, creating a more bewildering maze.
His solution, frankly, is uninspiring: a blue ribbon committee headed up by Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins. But the first step in solving a problem is recognizing you have one, so we’re at least 1/100th of the way there.
Photo: Reuters Pictures