Capitol Hill Has its Own ‘Survivor’

September 18, 2000

If CBS wants a real nail-biter to replace “Survivor,” it should take a look at the mix of tension and delay that the Bush or Gore appointees will face en route to office next year. The presidential appointment process is not only long enough to generate a full season of programming, it provides the kind of intrigue needed to keep viewers coming back week after week.

The first episode of “Survivor III,” following next year’s adventure in the Australian Outback, would be easy to advertise. Watch as the cast of nominees confronts the roughly 50 pages of forms that must be completed to begin the process. Zoom in as each one realizes that (a) the financial disclosure forms ask for the same information but in slightly different income categories and amounts, and (b) all but one of the forms must be filled out on a typewriter.

Walk back through time as nominees page through dusty yearbooks to find a high school classmate the FBI can interview. Share the frustration as nominees try to remember the birthdays of all relatives, living and dead, and the dates of every foreign trip they have taken over the past seven years.

Viewership could only increase as the process grinds on. Experience the anxiety as nominees get stuck somewhere among the White House, FBI, Office of Government Ethics and Senate. Worry about the timing as nominees put their homes on the market and give notice to their employers.

Guess what might be in those secret FBI field investigation files that nominees never get to see or correct before the Senate begins its review. Wallow in the hopelessness as the clock winds down on the legislative calendar.

Unfortunately, what makes for good television does not make for good government. The White House and the Senate are right to ask hard questions about candidate qualifications, conflicts of interest and potential embarrassments, even if doing so lengthens the process. But most of the delays have nothing to do with such concerns.

Rather, they are due to duplicate forms, understaffing in the White House personnel office, a steady increase in the number of political jobs and a misuse of the appointments process by presidents and Senators alike to fight battles best reserved for other venues.

There is no question that this process creates more than enough pathos to keep voyeurs—I mean viewers—interested. Roughly a quarter of the 435 Reagan, Bush and Clinton appointees interviewed for a recent Brookings Institution-Heritage Foundation survey described the process as embarrassing, two-fifths called it confusing and nearly half called it a necessary evil.

More to the point of governing, the next president will be lucky to have his Cabinet and sub-Cabinet confirmed by Nov. 1, 2001—more than nine months after Inauguration Day. Although President Clinton’s departure will certainly soothe Senate relations, it will do little to reduce the bureaucratic delays that mark the current process. The delays have been increasing ever since 1960 and will almost certainly increase in the future, as each new administration adds its own questions to the ever-lengthening process.

The forms themselves are bureaucratic torture. First used to ferret out Communists during the McCarthy era, the forms have expanded to cover every possible problem. Not only long and detailed, they repeat the same questions with just enough variation to demand an entirely new formulation of the same data.

It is no surprise that half of all nominees report that they sought outside help to fill out their forms, or that one-fifth had to spend more than $5,000 out of pocket to get the numbers right.

The forms are a perfect way to restore some balance to the nomination process. The White House, Office of Government Ethics, FBI and Senate could easily develop a single, multipurpose form that could be put online and on CD-ROM, thereby shaving weeks off the process.

They could also restore some common sense to the process by rewriting or dumping the ridiculous questions that have found their way onto the forms over the years.

Luckily, the Senate has the chance to take just such a first step toward reform by passing The Presidential Transition Act of 2000, sponsored by Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), and Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) and most of their Governmental Affairs Committee colleagues. Along with giving the General Services Administration new authority to orient presidential appointees under Rep. Steve Horn’s (R-Calif.) original proposal, the Senate’s expanded bill would require the Office of Government Ethics to make recommendations for streamlining the financial disclosure process. The bill was passed by the House just last Thursday, and now awaits action in the Senate.

The sooner the proposal is brought to the front of the line, the sooner the reforms can proceed, and the sooner next year’s appointees can benefit from the improvements.

Passage will not cure all that ails the appointments process, but it will make the lives of thousands of appointees just a bit more normal, while laying the foundation for a much greater effort to make presidential service more inviting through other reforms, such as higher appointee pay, a flatter federal hierarchy and a faster Senate confirmation procedure.

Until then, island Washington will remain a tempting location for “Survivor III,” and America’s most talented citizens will continue to vote themselves off the island even before arriving.