APRIL 1, 2009
Well, that wore off fast. When Barack Obama strode into town in January, he brought with him a great wave of idealism. Inspired by the president and his "call to service," America's best and brightest mused aloud in their faculty lounges, law office suites, and investment banks about how they would gladly sacrifice their financial interests to serve their country.
Flash forward to early spring. Large blocks of government offices sit unfilled and critical jobs--those involved in managing the global economy, for example--go unperformed. Talk to those administration recruiters, and they'll complain about the difficulty of finding bodies to fill the posts. It's not that the nation's elite have lost faith in the new administration. It's that they have been deterred by one of the most rigorous human-resources operations in history, frightened away by a colonoscopy of a vetting process that, even if it uncovers no intentional improprieties, could uncover a small, innocent miscalculation in a tax filing that will be aired in the press and by hostile politicians as if it were an execrable act of malfeasance. Exhibit A of this crisis is the Treasury Department. Since Tim Geithner took office more than six weeks ago, only one of the Treasury's 15 senior-level staff positions that require Senate confirmation has been filled (by a Bush administration holdover), leaving Geithner without the support that you'd want for the guy in charge of rescuing our financial system from oblivion. Most dishearteningly, three first-rate nominees--Annette Nazareth, H. Rodgin Cohen, and Caroline Atkinson--withdrew their names from consideration after the vetting process left them twisting for prolonged periods. And that's to say nothing of the swell of competent nominees who never even let things get that far. Unfortunately, the appointments malaise has spread well beyond Treasury. According to The Washington Post, of the 71 nominees Obama has asked to join his administration, only 41 have been formally appointed and only 28 have been confirmed. Holdups in the nominating process reach from the Energy Department and the Pentagon to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. As the Post reported last week, the "intensified vetting process has left dozens of President Obama's picks to run the government mired in a seemingly endless confirmation limbo, frustrated and cut off from the departments they are waiting to serve and unable to perform their new duties." Why the confirmation constipation? For one, there are more than a thousand presidential appointees that require Senate approval. Each has to pass a rigorous security check by the FBI, which conducts copious interviews not only with the nominee, but also with myriad acquaintances and colleagues. (One college president who was vetted for a part-time advisory-board position during the Clinton administration recalls FBI agents knocking on the doors of his fraternity-house neighbors to verify his character.) Obama's insistence on having the most transparent administration in U.S. history has slowed the process even further, and his high-minded ethics standards have limited his ability to consider the full scope of talent. While the revolving door should be closed to lobbyists, there's something absurd about a process that treats human rights activists and consumer advocates as the ethical equivalent of K Street sharks, shutting them out of government. What's more, the early tax snafus of Geithner, Tom Daschle, and Nancy Killefer have resulted in a vetting process--by both the administration and the Senate Finance Committee, which hired former IRS agents to comb through the nominees' tax records--that has discouraged a number of the government's top candidates for reasons that have nothing to do with their capacity to serve. While these types of delays and pressures are a quadrennial ritual, this year is the reductio ad absurdum of a broken process--and we hope it will prompt reform. There are simple fixes. One is to streamline the FBI background checks, reducing the number of interviews required. Another is to eliminate the need for Senate confirmation for lower-level positions--a change that would likely be unpopular on the Hill but would speed up the nomination process considerably. Finally, the Senate should be forbidden from placing "holds" on nominees to grandstand on behalf of pet causes--as Senator Robert Menendez reportedly did last week when he put a hold on the nominations of two top science officials in order to protest the administration's Cuba policy. Given that it has already faced several public scandals, we understand the administration's impulse to obsessively vet its nominees. But the perfect candidate does not always have the perfect resume or, for that matter, a perfect understanding of the federal tax code. President Obama needs to streamline this process before he erodes not only the willingness to serve, but his own ability to govern.