Confirmation is the Weakest Aspect of Oversight
There really is no reason for Congress to confirm so many posts.
To expand on a comment that I left in Doug Mataconis’ post on the large number of executive positions, I would note that of the oversight powers that Congress has, confirmation is one of the weakest (indeed, I am not even sure it is properly defined as “oversight” as much as it is simply a check on the president’s power). This is especially true of the hundred and hundreds of relatively obscure positions that no one is really paying much attention to in the first place.
Now, I am speaking here of appointments to executive positions and not to courts. At a minimum, the lifetime tenure of judges changes the basic equation in those appointments. Further, it makes sense in our separation of powers system that both of the other branches would have a role to play in populating the third (rather than leaving that power in the hands of only one other branch).
When it comes to executive appointments, however, we are talking neither about lifetime tenure, nor are we talking about populating an independent branch of government. We are talking about the elected executive populating the executive branch for a finite amount of time. Most of the appointment we are talking about here have a maximum term of four years.
As a side note, there are certainly appointed positions, such as to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, which serve longer terms and are invested with independent powers that fall into a different category and for which I am not targeting this conversation.
I will accept, for the sake of discussion, that an argument can be made that the heads of the cabinet level agencies ought to go before Congress as a check on the president, although I am open to an argument that even that process is not necessary. However, for the sake of this discussion I am thinking about everything below the top level of appointees.
The issue at hand is oversight of executive activity and whether Congress needs confirmation power as a means of overseeing the executive bureaucracy. In his post, Doug stated the following:
The reason that Congress has defaulted to making the positions of new agencies that it may create, of course, is that it allows that body to retain oversight control over the body itself from the very beginning by requiring that the Senate have a voice in determining who gets to staff those agencies. Ceding authority for appointment of new members to the President essentially means that the agency becomes a creature of the President.
But here’s the deal: vetting the occupant of a given position does not provide oversight power over the operation of that position. In other words, the behavior of the person once in office is by no means guaranteed because Congress approved said person.
Oversight is about the ongoing operation of the bureaucracies in question. Indeed, the oversight powers that Congress has over the components of the executive branch are budgeting and legislating. Ever dollar spent by the federal government is ultimately controlled by the Congress and every action of the federal government is controlled by laws passed by Congress (save the specific actions derived from the constitution, and even those are mostly applied via legislation).
The ability to say yes or no on a specific appointee (especially at lower levels) really doesn’t give Congress much much actual oversight power over the appointee in question. Further, once appointed they serve at the pleasure of the President, not of the Congress (even if some could potentially be impeached, not that that is going to happen).
Mostly the confirmation process is faux oversight at best, if it really can be defined as oversight at all. It is certainly easier than real oversight.
I would argue that, without a doubt, we require far too many positions to be approved by Congress. It really serves no real purpose apart from making it a slow and difficult process to populate the positions of office.