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H. Rodgin Cohen, “the leading candidate for Deputy Treasury Secretary, has withdrawn from consideration,” George Stephanoupoulous reports.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.

David Broder agrees.  So does Dan Drezner, who asks, “Has the vetting process in DC become too absurd, or are Obama’s subcabinet candidates too thin-skinned?”

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

FILED UNDER: Europe, Political Theory, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. PD Shaw says:

    Sure, it didn’t take long for JFK to appoint his EPA Administrator or the Secretaries of Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs, Education, Energy, HUD and Transportation.

    He was just that good!

  2. Marshall Gill says:

    Any chance that, just maybe, the people being nominated are, oh, I don’t know, perhaps CRIMINALS?!! And the process that brings this to light is what is wrong?!!!

    Daschal owed more in income taxes than the average American makes but it is the “process”?!! How dare someone mention that the Secretary of Treasury is either a blatant tax cheat (he is) or too stupid to use Turbo Tax?!!! He received 16 quarterly checks and signed 16 DIFFERENT TIMES that he recognized it was for paying his taxes and then he KEPT THE MONEY!!!

    The problem is not the process. The problem is the faulty character of the people being nominated, and the faulty character of those who defend them. The problem is that once physically near DC (even if technically “outside the beltway”) people lose the ability to act in a moral fashion. Instead of taking responsibility for their actions they blame others.

  3. John425 says:

    It isn’t the vetting process, it is the character of the nominees and the arrogance of the Administration.

  4. Bithead says:

    If there was something wrong with the process, Bush wouldn’t have been able to get anyone in, either. Perhaps the issue is the people being nominated? And, maybe part of is … who does the picking? Why Obama himself or his close associates.

    As I said at my own place today, like all new Presdients, Obama picked people with whom he can work and who are of a mind like to his own on the issues of the day, and things like integrity, worldview and so on. These folks are the very flower of the liberal politics he espouses, and particularly, the Chicago style of liberal politics Obama was steeped in. Therein lies the issue, I’m afraid.

    But more;

    Add a generous dash of Soros money and Clintonista muscle, and I suspect what we see right now, is what we get, and that he’s not going to be any better than this for the next four years.

  5. If you look at the number of people indicted and/or convicted under the Clinton administration, then you see that the Obama administration is just front loading his ethics problem in the nomination process. Of course, if you compare this to the number of people indicted and/or convicted under the Bush administration, you see that the issue may be associated with the “we make the rules but don’t have to live under them” attitude of the establishment democrats.

  6. Steve Plunk says:

    YAJ, Bit, John425, Marshall, and PD are all on the right track. It’s not the process but those being processed.

  7. John Burgess says:

    Part of the simplicity of the parliamentary systems and their bureaucracies is that they have very few political appointees. A permanent bureaucracy, staffing levels that in the US are political appointees, allows them to pretty much function without a hiccup during a change of administration.

    I recall the great anguish in the UK that accompanied Tony Blair’s intention to put political appointees deeper into the bureaucracies. That seemed to the British to be arrantly ‘American’ and they didn’t like it one bit.

    TV programs like ‘Yes, Minister’ were only slight exaggerations of the powers held by the permanent undersecretaries and their like. I’m sure I don’t want the US government going in that direction.

  8. Benedict says:

    There is an alternative or additional explanation that has not yet been mentioned: When, during the vetting process, the nominee gets a fuller understanding the policy imperatives they are going to be asked to implement, they refuse, as a matter of principle.

    The early returns are in, and the radicalism of Obama’s agenda – and the degree to which it differed from his more mainstream campaign rhetoric – is clear. I can fully understand folks who have worked at a senior level in the financial sector not wanting to be tarred by what Obama is going to seek to do to this country over the next 4 years.

    Finally, there is the other obvious explanation – for which there is also a fast-growing body of evidence – that Tim Geithner is a clueless buffoon with whom these folks do not want to work.

    Coutn me among those who believe that blaming the process is a cop-out.

  9. markm says:

    Any chance that, just maybe, the people being nominated are, oh, I don’t know, perhaps CRIMINALS?!!

    I have to agree. Tax problems, IMO, are a bit more serious than tabloid nanny he said she said stuff. And as also pointed out above, if Geithner set the bar, Dashle cleared it by a new worlds record. And I realize those with large assets can have whoopsies on a larger scale but I believe there was no intent for Geithner or Dashle to pay those taxes were they not nominated. In that sense the process works fine 🙂

    Sure, ANY tax problems now are sure to sink a worthy candidate…but that’s probably more politics than process.

  10. Herb says:

    I wonder about the metrics used to come up with the failed appointees list. Daschle and Richardson withdrew in scandal, yes. Freeman had controversy. Judd Gregg had doubts. Sanjay Gupta decided he liked making CNN money too much.

    Failed appointees? Sure. Obama appointees? Sure.

    But they’re clearly not all in the same boat and racking up the names just seems silly. Every president has “failed appointees.” Some are more offensive than others.

  11. Marshall Gill says:

    Another failed appointment. Is this also the fault of the “process”?

    Talk about a shill for “inside the beltway” stupidity! It isn’t the amorality of the President and his nominees, but “the process”.

    Trying to get a job in the administration or do you already hold one there?

  12. Bithead says:

    There is an alternative or additional explanation that has not yet been mentioned: When, during the vetting process, the nominee gets a fuller understanding the policy imperatives they are going to be asked to implement, they refuse, as a matter of principle.

    Mmmm. Certainly, we’d not hear directly about such situations at least with a Democrat administration. It would cast nagatives on the Democrat and as has been clearly demonstrated over the years, the press won’t be party to that.
    Point well taken.

    I wonder about the metrics used to come up with the failed appointees list.

    Well, there is something to this point as well, but it seems to me that Benedict’s point explains most of it.

    So what does that leave us with, then?

    Think of it, people… the tax cheats etc are the ones who want into this administration and are willing to work toward Obama’s policy objectives. The principled ones, are backing away like someone who has just found out they’ve been flirting with a female impersonator.

    What does that say about Obama, himself?

  13. Gerry says:

    The European system of a permanent civil service is a TERRIBLE system, because the bureaucrats are overwhelmingly supporters of one political party (the “naturally governing party”) and actively sabotage the other political parties. When Harold Wilson occupied 10 Downing Street in the 1960s, he was constantly worrying about being undermined and driven from office by the Westminster mandarins, who were Conservatives. In Canada, most civil servants work relentlessly on behalf of the Liberal party, even though the Progressive Conservatives are currently in power.

    There is nothing broken about the status quo. Any system will have some disadvantages, but making 3,000 appointments is not that difficult in an age of computers.

  14. Alexander Klingman says:

    Any chance that, just maybe, the people being nominated are, oh, I don’t know, perhaps CRIMINALS?!!

    Citation Needed.

  15. Marshall Gill says:

    Any chance that, just maybe, the people being nominated are, oh, I don’t know, perhaps CRIMINALS?!!

    Citation Needed.

    Posted by Alexander Klingman | March 13, 2009 | 01:42 pm

    Is there some game on this site where you can’t google? While it took me 2 or 3 minutes I would think that I wouldn’t have to argue the HuffPo as being biased against the current Administration.

    Now, you might argue, “he wasn’t convicted” and that is true. Neither was OJ, but that does not mean he was not a “criminal”

    So, sure, he only made little mistakes. Of course, even though I am no attorney, I am pretty sure that if I sign, how many forms, acknowledging that I received a check for paying my taxes, but then fail to pay them, I don’t get to say “oopps”. So, starting with the Secretary of Treasury….

    Do I need to find you a link about Daschal’s failure to pay taxes? Since you are apparently new to the net try here

  16. Bithead says:

    Apparently, the crew that spent eight years in fervent, unalterable belief that Bush did (insert anything you like here) now suddenly needs proof of what they already know