Appointments Apocalypse

May 14, 2001

Anyone who doubts that the presidential appointments process is on the verge of collapse need only look at three recent events.

On April 30, President Bush’s 101st afternoon in office, the White House dumped 61 names into the Senate confirmation process in a desperate effort to beat the Clinton administration’s dismal mark after its 100th day. Despite smashing the single-day nomination record, Bush had nominated less than 30 percent of the candidates for sub-Cabinet posts by the end of that week.

On May 2, Senate Democrats announced that they were delaying a vote on two Justice Department nominees to express their anger over a change in the process that gives home-state Senators a say about federal judicial nominees. Not to be outdone, Republicans followed suit by placing holds on four Defense nominees to remind Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that he should communicate more frequently with the chamber.

On May 4, the administration borrowed the president of the National Academy of Public Administration to stand in for the deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget until the administration can find someone willing to fill the most important Senate-confirmed management post. Robert O’Neill will serve in the OMB post for up to 120 days.

These are just the most recent signs of an appointments apocalypse. Every administration since 1960 has faced increasing delays in winning confirmation of its nominees, creating a rising tide of vacancies in the senior ranks of government. Whereas John F. Kennedy had his Cabinet and sub-Cabinet in place by April 1961, Bill Clinton had to wait until mid-October. Short of a miracle in which candidates say yes sooner and the Senate confirmation python digests them faster, the Bush administration will not be fully in place until next February or March.

Some delays involve red tape. Senate-confirmed nominees must answer more than 230 questions, including the dates and places of birth of all relatives, the dates and purposes of all foreign travel dating back 15 years, and a list of any traffic fines above $150. Background checks by the White House Office of Presidential Personnel, FBI and Office of Government Ethics take longer than ever.

Other delays are political. Convinced that a bad appointment hurts more than a good one helps, presidential recruiters have tightened the screws, forcing candidates for even the most trivial political posts to endure a thicket of review.

Meanwhile, the Senate appears to know no limits when it comes to using legislative holds to extract concessions from the president.

Still other delays involve the growing difficulties in recruiting talented Americans to fill the top jobs. Concerns about the cost of moving to Washington, worries about restarting their careers once the administration is over, perceptions that the appointments process is confusing and unfair, and a sense that lower-level jobs are too far from the action have led many of America’s top corporate and civic leaders to conclude that an appointment would be an honor for anyone but them.

Luckily, the Governmental Affairs Committee has begun to build a legislative record supporting long-overdue reform. The committee held two days of hearings last month to define the problem and explore potential solutions, including a reform agenda drafted by The Presidential Appointee Initiative’s advisory board.

The committee could cut the bureaucratic delays by streamlining the financial disclosure forms and creating a single form to collect personal information. It could also accelerate background checks by making sure the investigating offices have enough staffers to do their jobs quickly.

The committee could reduce the political delays by winnowing the number of presidential appointments subject to confirmation, while urging the Senate as a whole to set a 14-day limit on holds and a 45-day clock on Senate review. It could also launch a process for reducing the number of political layers in government, which would ease the burdens on a process that can only accommodate 20 to 30 nominees a week.

Finally, the committee could make presidential service more attractive by increasing appointee salaries and providing at least some relocation assistance.

Action cannot come soon enough. Unless something is done to reduce the red tape, increase comity between the branches and make presidential appointments more attractive, this won’t be the last administration that may be still arriving as it is leaving.

Paul C. Light is Vice President and Director of Governmental Studies at the Brookings Institution and [Senior] Adviser to The Presidential Appointee Initiative.