The Glacial Pace of Presidential Appointments
Having endured the 35-day Florida impasse and a 40-day truncated transition, the nation may now have to wait another six months to know the true quality of the Bush administration. That is the approximate time it will take to swear in the rest of the administration’s appointees.
The delay is not in the Oval Office, where the president and his director of presidential personnel, Clay Johnson, have set records in picking candidates. By the end of last week, according to Mr. Johnson, the president had selected candidates for roughly half of the nearly 500 cabinet and subcabinet posts subject to Senate confirmation, and was well on his way to choosing the 2,500 additional appointees who serve at the president’s pleasure.
But no matter how fast Mr. Bush picks his candidates, today’s presidential-appointments process can accommodate only 20 to 30 nominees a week. Clogged with bureaucratic sediment and filled with distrust, the appointments pipeline involves a succession of twists and turns that leaves nominees exhausted, embarrassed and confused.
Imagine the worst possible process for building an administration. It would begin with 60 pages of forms, most of which must be filled out with a typewriter. It would continue with a Federal Bureau of Investigation background check that can take six weeks or more. It would feature a financial disclosure process that requires a top-to-bottom scrubbing for any possible conflict of interest. It would end with a Senate confirmation process that introduces an entirely new set of forms and hearings and schedules. It would, as former White House counsel C. Boyden Gray once remarked, assume that all appointees are innocent until nominated.
Unfortunately, this abusive process isn’t imaginary. It is the status quo, and it has clearly worsened over the past four decades. According to surveys of past presidential appointees conducted by the Brookings Institution’s Presidential Appointee Initiative, the delays have grown with each passing administration.
Roughly 30% of the appointees who served between 1984 and 1999 said the nomination and confirmation process had taken more than six months, compared with just 15% of the appointees who served between 1964 and 1984. Whereas the Kennedy administration was fully in place by the middle of April after inauguration, and the Reagan administration by the middle of June, the first Bush administration was not fully confirmed until early October, and the Clinton administration not until mid-October.
Much of this delay comes from the sheer number of jobs to be filled. Convinced that more leaders equal greater accountability, every Congress and president since the 1960s has added Senate-confirmed positions. Kennedy nominated just 15 undersecretaries in 1961; Mr. Bush will appoint almost 50. Kennedy nominated 87 assistant secretaries; Mr. Bush will appoint more than 220.
Presidents have also added layers of nonconfirmed positions. Despite its promise to flatten government, the Clinton administration added 16 new layers to the top of the federal hierarchy, including ridiculously overblown titles such as assistant chief of staff to the secretary, deputy to the deputy secretary, principal assistant deputy undersecretary, and associate principal deputy assistant secretary. Because every appointment, major and minor, carries some potential for political disaster, all must go through the same background checks and White House review. But because the process can only handle 20 to 30 names a week, delays are inevitable.
Numbers aren’t the only problem. The forms themselves take forever to complete, and have become a sort of bureaucratic torture. Designed to ferret out communists during the McCarthy era, the forms cover every possible embarrassment and are needlessly complex. The financial disclosure form includes 11 pages of instructions, while the national security form contains ridiculously outdated questions. Does the Federal Bureau of Investigation still need to know the dates and places of birth of all relatives, including in-laws? Does it still need to ask for the dates and purposes of all foreign trips over the past 15 years, including short trips to Mexico and Canada? And where, pray tell, is the national security risk in having a traffic fine over $150?
Add them all up, and most Bush appointees will answer 230 questions, many of which ask for the same information, with just enough variation to require an entirely new answer. It is little wonder that half of the Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton nominees interviewed by the Presidential Appointee Initiative said they sought outside help to fill out the forms, or that one-sixth spent money out of their own pocket to pay for legal or financial advice.
The delays don’t end once nominees leave the executive branch. The Senate introduces new roadblocks, including personal holds, threatened filibusters, scheduling conflicts, and frequent recesses. If the Bush administration doesn’t get its cabinet and subcabinet confirmed by late October when the Senate adjourns, it may have to wait until mid-January to start again. Under the best of circumstances, the Senate moves at subglacial speed, and now is anything but the best of circumstances. With so much at stake in the 2002 elections, and so many Senate Democrats angling for the 2004 presidential nomination, the upper chamber will be empty early and often over the next two years.
This process would make perfect sense if there were some value in discouraging talented Americans from accepting the call to service. Luckily, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee believes otherwise, and has scheduled hearings this week to consider a range of reforms that would streamline the process and flatten the political hierarchy. Although action isn’t likely to come in time to rescue the first class of Bush appointees, the Senate has a unique opportunity to help future presidents. Unless something is done soon to cut the delays, future administrations may find themselves leaving office before they finish arriving.