Up Front

Increased Efficiency for Senate Confirmation of Presidential Appointments

William A. Galston

The process of nominating and confirming appointees for posts in the federal government has been a mess for decades, and in recent years it has only gotten worse. By the eighteen-month mark of Barack Obama’s presidency, a quarter of the key policymaking positions were vacant, and nearly 20 percent remained unfilled by the midterm elections in November 2010. More than just statistics, these facts point to real challenges for the governance process. In March of 2009, for example, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner found himself dealing with the worst financial catastrophe in 70 years without most of his principal deputies in place.

There are many reasons for this deplorable state of affairs. No doubt the increasing polarization of our parties has left many nominees twisting in the partisan winds. The desire of incoming administrations to avoid reputation-sapping, momentum-slowing snafus also plays a role. But the process itself—including the often unintended consequences of decisions by both Congress and the executive branch–is a large part of the problem

For more than two decades, blue ribbon commissions have patiently pointed out the obvious and recommended sensible reforms. And throughout this period, virtually nothing changed—except that the process grew ever-more cumbersome and dysfunctional.

It was in that context that E.J. Dionne and I decided to convene a bipartisan working group made up of scholars, current and former elected officials, two former heads of the presidential personnel office, and one three-time victim of the confirmation process. We told the participants that the objective was not to come up with new ideas but rather to help us understand better the practical obstacles to the adoption of the good ideas that had long been on the table. The group spent a full day working on that question and generated a wealth of insights that we eventually synthesized into a report entitled “A Half-Empty Government Can’t Govern: Why Everyone Wants to Fix the Appointments Process, Why It Never Happens, and How We can Get It Done.” In that report, we sorted ideas according to their political feasibility. We suggested that some proposals constituted what we called “low-hanging fruit” that all the stakeholders should be able to accept, while other equally worthy ideas would face a rockier road.

Then we got lucky. Despite the intense divisions between the political parties, a bipartisan coterie of senators in the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and in the leadership decided that things had gotten out of hand and that something needed to be done. E.J. and I had the opportunity to brief staff members and then comment on a draft of the emerging legislation. With strong bipartisan support (nine Democratic cosponsors, seven Republicans, and Joe Lieberman, an Independent) the refined proposal proceeded in orderly fashion through the Senate legislative process. At the end of June, the Senate passed S. 679—the Presidential Appointment Efficiency and Streamlining Act of 2011—by the rare bipartisan margin of 79 to 20. Not only would the bill end the requirement of Senate confirmation for approximately 170 agency and cabinet positions, as well as more than two hundred members of presidential commissions, but also it sets in motion a process that should lead to a significant simplification of the burdensome and duplicative forms that nominees must complete. There appears to be no reason why the House of Representatives won’t lend its support to the bill and send it to the president’s desk.

This bill won’t solve all the problems of the appointments process. But it will allow the Senate to focus more expeditiously on the nominees that most deserve detailed scrutiny. Making it simpler for nominees to complete the paperwork may diminish the reluctance of many highly qualified individuals to subject themselves to a burdensome ordeal. And who knows: maybe senators who found a way to cooperate on a long-gridlocked issue will decide to make a habit of it.