To Form a Government: A Bipartisan Plan to Improve the Presidential Appointments Process

Senate Governmental Affairs Committee
342 Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington, DC

TESTIMONY
Nancy Kassebaum Baker, former Senator from Kansas
Franklin D. Raines, Chairman and CEO of Fannie Mae
Paul C. Light, Vice President and Director of Governmental Studies, The Brookings Institution
G. Calvin Mackenzie, Distinguished Presidential Professor of American Government, Colby College

The Brookings Institution Issues New Report for Mending the Presidential Appointments Process

Congress to be Presented with Eleven Recommendations for Improving a Broken Process

A System Described as "Nasty and Brutish Without Being Short"

The Brookings Institution today released a report outlining eleven recommendations for improving the system for nominating and confirming presidential appointees

The recommendations are contained in a report from the Brookings Institution's Presidential Appointee Initiative, To Form a Government: A Bipartisan Plan to Improve the Presidential Appointments Process. The report outlines a comprehensive approach to improving a system that policy analysts, scholars, officials from administrations past and present, and - most importantly - nominees themselves almost universally describe as broken.

The evidence pointing to an appointments process in disrepair is indisputable. The time it takes to fully staff the federal government's top positions now stretches to almost a full year following each presidential election. Forms proliferate, FBI background checks grow ever more intrusive, and financial disclosure becomes a grueling exercise often requiring days of consultation with accountants and attorneys.

Surveys conducted for The Presidential Appointee Initiative (PAI) indicate that more and more qualified candidates are turned off to public service by the appointments process. Two-fifths of the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton appointees surveyed by PAI described the appointments process as confusing, and a quarter called it embarrassing. Corporate and civic leaders had even more negative views of the process. More than half of them said the words confusing and embarrassing fit the process well. As one leading participant in the presidential appointments process said, the system as currently configured is "nasty and brutish without being short."

"It is hard to imagine a process for recruiting presidential appointees that could be more confusing, embarrassing, and frustrating than Congress and the president have created over the past few decades," said Paul C. Light, Vice President and Director of Governmental Studies at the Brookings Institution and Senior Adviser to The Presidential Appointee Initiative. "Unless there is some reason for discouraging talented Americans from accepting the call to service, or creating a headless government in which offices linger vacant for month after month, it is time for reform."

As the introduction to the report states: "The caustic politics of our time make appointments an inviting target for those who wish to shape public policy, settle old scores, or bargain with the incumbent administration."

The report contains 11 recommendations for improving the appointments process, calling on the White House and the Congress to:

  • Create a permanent Office of Presidential Personnel in the Executive Office of the President
    Simplify and standardize the information-gathering forms used in the presidential appointments process, and develop and maintain online, interactive access to all such forms and questionnaires for persons going through the appointments process
  • Reduce the number of positions requiring FBI full-field investigations
  • Undertake a comprehensive review of the ethics requirements imposed on political appointees, with the goal of striking a balance between concerns for the integrity of those who serve and the need to eliminate intrusive or complex disclosure requirements
  • Ensure annual changes in executive-level salaries equal to changes in the Consumer Price Index
  • Reduce the number of positions requiring Senate confirmation
  • Limit the imposition of "holds" by all Senators to a total of no more than 14 days
  • Require Senate confirmation votes within 45 days after receipt of a nomination
  • Allow nominations to be reported out of their respective Senate committee without a hearing upon the concurrence of a majority of committee members of each party
  • Reduce the number and layers of political appointees by one-third
  • Grant the president renewed executive reorganization authority to de-layer senior management levels of all executive departments and agencies

Congress has taken note of the deteriorating state of the appointments process. On Thursday, April 5, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, chaired by Senator Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., and co-chaired by Senator Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., will be presented with the recommendations at a hearing called to examine possible solutions to the problems that afflict the appointments process.

"Luckily, it isn't difficult to turn back the clock on this system to a faster, fairer time," Light said. "Congress and the president could easily trim months off the current delays by streamlining the forms and setting some simple rules for Senate action. They could trim more months still by reducing the number and layers of political appointees."

The Brookings Institution established The Presidential Appointee Initiative in 1999 with a grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts. The initiative is working to encourage talented citizens to seek and accept presidential appointments and to build support for reforms that will simplify and expedite future appointments. The initiative has published A Survivor's Guide for Presidential Nominees, a step-by-step primer for nominees navigating the murky waters of the appointments process. It recently began issuing a weekly countdown on progress being made to fill nearly 500 Senate confirmed positions in the Bush administration.

The initiative is supported by a distinguished advisory board co-chaired by former Senator Nancy Kassebaum Baker and Franklin D. Raines, Chairman and CEO of Fannie Mae and former Director of the Office of Management and Budget. To learn more about The Presidential Appointee Initiative, view its new "Confirmation Countdown," or order copies of its research studies and publications, visit www.appointee.brookings.org.

Editors' Note: For interview requests with Paul C. Light, Vice President and Director of Governmental Studies at the Brookings Institution and Senior Adviser to The Presidential Appointee Initiative, or advisory board co-chairs Franklin D. Raines or Nancy Kassebaum Baker, please call Rodney Ferguson or Tucker Warren at 202-371-0696, or email them at rferguson@lipmanhearne.com or twarren@lipmanhearne.com.

A Brookings Project Funded By The Pew Charitable Trusts