The Presidential Appointment Process Is Broken. We Need To...

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JONATHAN COHN OCTOBER 11, 2010

The Presidential Appointment Process Is Broken. We Need To Fix It. Now.

The executive branch appointment process, both nomination and confirmation, is broken. I know it, you know it, the civil servants who work at the departments and agencies know it, the Senate knows it, and above all the people who who under normal circumstances would be eager to accept appointments know it. Two more data points from late last week. First, Ezra Klein spotted Steve Rattner’s lament about what he had to go through on his way to working for the government, including what he says was $400K to attorneys. That’s four - zero - zero - zero - zero - zero. In order to get a government job. Second, from the San Antonio Express-News:

Michael McCrum, the leading candidate to be the top federal prosecutor in the San Antonio-based Western District of Texas, withdrew his name from consideration Thursday, frustrated with a dragging nomination process that had put his life on indefinite hold.

The development came as a surprise, given that the former assistant U.S. attorney, now a defense lawyer, had gotten the political nod more than a year ago from Texas’ Democratic Congressional delegation and even had support from the state’s two Republican senators...

But when no announcement of his nomination came after more than a year, McCrum wrote to the White House on Thursday and withdrew [emphasis added].

That’s one high-profile appointment that succeeded because someone was willing to put up with a radically invasive, expensive, and frustrating process, and one low-profile appointment failing for similar reasons. Just two of hundreds. And that’s to get nominated in the first place, presumably for appointees who are not controversial in any way -- I’m not even talking here about Senate minorities blocking Nobel Prize winners

This is insane.

All presidents have good reason to fix the process. Democratic presidents, who have both political and (presumably) ideological reasons to want the government to actually function effectively, have even more reason than GOP presidents.

The problem is a vetting process that keeps growing and mutating.  Every time a nominee goes down, presidents add another layer of vetting to make sure that problem never happens again. Zoe Baird was accused of not paying certain taxes? Make sure no one can ever be appointed without making sure she’s crossed every T and dotted every I on her taxes. That’s part of it. The other part is that it’s a cheap applause line for presidential candidates to promise the cleanest administration ever, and then in order to convince the press they, yup, add new layers of vetting.

Fortunately, this is a problem that can be solved.

I’ve said this before, but this is exactly the kind of case in which a presidentially-appointed commission could actually get something done.* Barack Obama should appoint a bipartisan commission and charge it to fix the appointment process by reducing the burdens that fall on appointees for positions ranging from Cabinet Secretary down to U.S. Attorneys and Deputy Assistant Whatevers. Get a couple of former White House Chiefs of Staff to co-chair it, add two retired Senators who chaired committees that dealt with nominations, spice it up with a couple of CEOs, and finish it off with two or three people who had to go through the appointment ordeal. Announce that the goal will be to run government like a business (everyone loves that rhetoric, whether it makes any sense or not). Tell them to report back in three months, and that it should be no more difficult to go work for the government than it is to get hired by a big corporation to do a similar job.

Then implement their plan.

That still leaves getting the Senate on board -- a lot of excessive vetting before nominations are made is pegged to requirements imposed by Senate committees, and then there’s the mostly unrelated but still important problem of minority blocks on confirmation. That part is a lot harder to solve, but it would be easier if the administration acts as if it cares about the issue. Reform would also risk a lot of flack from Good Government types, and perhaps Obama could find some appropriate anti-lobbying legislation to support if they’re willing to look the other way on loosening of some insane restrictions on who is allowed to serve in government (you would think that Good Government groups would care about government actually running well, but you would be wrong -- they value the appearance of corruption much higher than they do competent governance). 

Could it happen? I think so. I don’t think there’s actually any serious constituency in favor of the status quo. Republicans could refuse to play along, but those who think themselves future Republican presidents (that is, most GOP Senators) would have an interest in getting it done before they take office, and I don’t really see it as an issue that would mobilize the masses.

What it would take is energy in the executive -- that is, it would take action from the president. So far, Barack Obama has shown very little interest in such issues. That’s a mistake, and one he would do well to rectify.

*Presidentially-appointed commissions are useful in two situations. One is if the president doesn’t really want to do something that he doesn’t want to be seen not doing, in which case a commission helps kick the can down the road. The other, relevant here, is if everyone more or less agrees on something but no one wants to get the exclusive credit (or blame) for it. 

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posted in: jonathan cohn, politics, barack obama, senate

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