Skip to main content
Op-Ed

Why Political Jobs Stay Empty

Presidential appointees have some of the world’s toughest, most
important jobs. The hours are long, the decisions difficult, the
stress unrelenting. Just ask the Bush-administration appointees
who worked to free the Navy crew held by China. One false move
and the United States could have been at war.

Given the importance of the nearly 500 Senate-confirmed political
jobs at the top of the federal hierarchy, you’d think there would
be a system in place that encourages talented Americans to serve.
Instead, the appointment process is convoluted, confusing and
brutally intrusive. It asks too many questions, exposes applicants
to needless embarrassment and produces exasperating, even dangerous,
delays.

At the height of the China crisis, for example, only five of the
State Department’s 47 Senate-confirmed appointees and just two
of the Defense Department’s 45 appointees were in office. President
Bush had selected candidates for almost half the vacancies, but
most were stuck in bureaucratic sediment.

There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is the
sheer number of jobs. Every Congress and president since the 1960s
has added new jobs to the political bureaucracy. But the cumbersome
appointment process can handle only 20-30 applicants a week, so
delays mount.

The government also has created a financial-disclosure process
that removes most privacy protections: The seven-page form comes
with 11 pages of instructions. Each asset and income source in
one of 11 categories of value must be listed. Failure to get the
numbers right can result in criminal prosecution.

Digging for dirt

The 10-page national-security form is even more intrusive. It
asks applicants for the name of someone who knew them in high
school and college, a list of all traffic fines over $ 150, the
dates and places of birth of all relatives, living or dead, the
name and address of any “former spouse(s),” the name and address
of any psychiatrist, psychologist or counselor consulted, and
the dates and purposes of all foreign trips in the past 15 years.

In total, nominees must answer more than 230 questions, most of
which ask for the same information with just enough variation
to require an entirely new formulation. Once submitted, each answer
is checked and re-checked, whether through an FBI background check
or a financial analysis by the federal Office of Government Ethics,
both of which take precious time.

Perfect or perfectly wrong?

The process is so burdensome that it favors exactly the wrong
kind of candidate. The perfect candidates are no longer citizens
with the judgment needed to manage an international crisis or
an economic upheaval, but individuals with so little experience
that they can slip through the process with relative ease. Carried
to the extreme, today’s perfect candidate has no life, no controversy,
no history, no family.

Luckily, Bush and his predecessors have mostly resisted the temptation
to nominate perfect candidates. Today’s candidates have experience—enough to create increasingly long delays in their appointments.

There is nothing wrong with tough questions that cure obvious
conflicts or resolve security concerns. But in its zeal to prevent
flawed appointments, the government has created a very different
risk: an administration filled with persistent vacancies at its
top.

Fixing this requires the streamlining of the financial-disclosure
process, reductions in the bloated, over-layered political hierarchy
and a Senate commitment to act quickly once nominations arrive.
It does not require an end to public disclosure of potential conflicts
of interest. But there is no reason that the sunshine of disclosure
needs to burn good potential appointees to the point that they
refuse to serve.

Paul C. Light, vice president and director of governmental
studies at the Brookings Institution, is senior adviser to The
Presidential Appointee Initiative
.

Author

Get daily updates from Brookings