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The problem with our presidential appointment process

The new Republican House decided to read the Constitution as the first order of business on Thursday. Although the majority could not resist rewriting the Constitution to its liking by erasing sentences and sections that have been modified by amendments, the reading sets a good precedent for reminding our representatives that there is a Constitution.

For its part, the new Republican majority should pay particular attention to the Constitution's "take care" clause, ordering that all the laws be faithfully executed, even ones members want to change. Instead of eviscerating faithful execution through blunt reforms such as arbitrary budget cuts and indiscriminate downsizing, they should work with Democrats on eliminating programs that don't work and realigning the federal workforce to put more energy on the front-lines where the laws are implemented.

The Senate could use a few minutes reading the Constitution, too. For its part, the chamber should pay particular attention to Article II, section 2, clause 2. This sentence is particularly important for the Senate as it considers its role in the president's appointments process.

Under the clause, the president "shall nominate, and by and with the Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the Supreme Court, and all others Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Departments."

The Senate has repeatedly failed to play this role with any deliberate speed, as has the president. The first class of Obama appointees is still not fully in place. And although the Senate confirmed a long list of appointees on its very last day in session, the administration long ago set the modern record for empty slots.

While the Obama administration has done reasonably well in pushing nominees through the process once they have been announced, there have been long delays in finding nominees in the first place. The head of the Drug Enforcement Administration was vacant for almost two years, for example, as was the second in command at the Justice Department.

Moreover, those Obama appointees that did make it into positions have started leaving office for lucrative jobs in the private sector. Much of the administration is now heading out the door even as the first round of appointees is arriving. As the Washington Post recently reported, the former director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Peter Orszag just took a job with Citigroup.

The revolving door is starting to spin at the career level too, as senior officers involved in financial regulation start cashing in for much higher paying jobs across the industry they once oversaw.

Congress and the Obama administration are both to blame for the slowdown. Senators have no shame holding nominees on stalled pet projects and trivial issues such as taking home-office deductions. The threshold for holds has dropped to new lows.

And it's not just Republican senators who are abusing their power to delay nominations indefinitely. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) put a hold on Orszag's replacement, Jack Lew, in a pique over the Gulf of Mexico drilling ban, arguing that he just didn't know enough about drilling to merit confirmation.

Admittedly, Lew had trivial responsibility for the Interior Department's budget, but it was a frivolous hold almost entirely related to Landrieu's future reelection. She kept the hold on even after the Obama administration compromised on the issue, leaving the OMB without senior leadership at a critical moment in the budget process. Lew deserved better. So did the country.

Holds are only part of the problem in the outmoded appointments process. Too many management jobs such as the chief financial officers could be appointed without Senate confirmation. And many others such as the chief human capital officers should be career civil servants with the institutional memory needed for quick action.

Then there is the paperwork that begins with the White House personal data form, which borders on abusive. The financial disclosure and national security forms are no better. They are filled with antiquated questions about family, international travel and a look-back to every job held during the past 15 years.

Taxes should be part of the review for sure--it is still unclear how Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner survived his failure to pay back taxes. But most of the questions are trivial and repetitive, including the silly demand that potential nominees produce any contentious emails they might have sent in recent years.

Even if the Senate and White House trimmed the needless paperwork, the real problem is the rising number of appointees. The process is like pushing laundry down a tiny chute--and then into a clothes washer that spins every nominee to avoid embarrassment to the president and to afford maximum concessions and posturing for the Senate. Hence the dismal record.

Some experts argue that the Senate might move faster if it just made holds public, but most holds are already visible as Senators wax poetic about their power to stop nominees.

The other option is to simply cut the number of appointees, including the ranks of presidential appointees who do not require Senate confirmation at all. You are nothing in the federal hierarchy if you don't have a chief of staff, deputy chief of staff or a retinue of political handlers who occupy office mostly to micromanage their agencies. The total number of appointees, Senate-confirmed and at will presidential aides, now stands at 3,000 full-timers and another 7,000 part-timers.

A simple halving of the total would not only make the bureaucracy more accountable, effective and productive (my three watchwords for hoped-for comprehensive reform in the next Congress), but would also move information and guidance faster. It is still unclear why the director of National Intelligence, James L. Clapper, was late to hear about the arrest of British terrorists before an ABC television interview, but what is clear is that he was out of the loop. He's the director of National Intelligence, for goodness sakes.

Cutting the number of political appointees would not save a great deal of money, but it would send two signals of note. First, it would share the pain of job cuts with the rest of the civil service. Second, it might be the first step in flattening the hierarchies within the contractor community, which are also bloated with needless layers of senior executives.

Sens. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) put such legislation on the docket last year but the Senate dodged the question, in part under White House pressure. Presidents are loath to give up political positions that might reward a generous donor, but continue to tolerate 20 percent vacancy rates in their top jobs.

With Feingold now gone, the question is whether anyone else will pick up the issue in a bipartisan effort to finally winnow the bloated presidential hierarchy. Somebody should. The Senate has the obligation to give its advice and consent. And if senators don't like a nominee, they should vote him down. But that would take the kind of courage in short supply in the senior chamber.

By Paul Light

 |  January 6, 2011; 12:37 PM ET |  Category:  Bad leadership , Federal government leadership , Public leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

"...Although the majority could not resist rewriting the Constitution to its liking by erasing sentences and sections that have been modified by amendments..."

I'm not sure failing to read a section of a document that is later lawfully modified by an amendment is "rewriting..to its liking.."

By introducing this thought in the second sentence of your column, you established right off the bat your idelogical bias. Thanks, because I knew then I could skip the rest of the column; objectivity would not be in evidence.

Posted by: Curmudgeon10 | January 11, 2011 3:32 PM

You are right, there are far too many political appointees, but they fall into two categories: one, the people who get titles with lots of capitals in them, and two, eager and uninformed True Believers who had never held a real job in their lives.

The latter were an especial bane in the last Administration -- perhaps you remember the woman at Justice who had a grand title right out of law school but whose sole job was administering loyalty oaths and kicking out suspected Democrats?

Policy jobs should be held by political appointees. Everything else should be held by somebody who actually has relevant expertise or skill.

Posted by: thaimex | January 8, 2011 12:09 AM

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