Our political system in Washington is once again falling down on the job. This time, it’s the failure to fill top federal positions in a timely fashion.
At the State Department, nearly one-fourth of the most senior posts are vacant, including the top regional officials for the Middle East, Asia, Europe and Africa, plus the top posts overseeing embassy security and counterterrorism. At the Pentagon, the furloughs of 800,000 civilian employees are being managed by a temporary personnel chief.
As the New York Times reported, “The Treasury Department is searching for a new No. 2, the Department of Homeland Security is missing its top two cybersecurity officials and about 30 percent of the top jobs at the Commerce Department are still vacant.”
It’s all part of an appointment and confirmation process that over the years has become bogged down by a combination of government growth, bureaucratic inertia, convoluted and lengthy vetting processes by the presidential administration, and — above all — partisan game-playing on both sides of the Senate aisle. Here’s a look at each of these factors:
>> Government growth. In 1981, the new president, Ronald Reagan, needed to fill 295 core policy positions in the Cabinet departments and executive agencies. By 2009, when Barack Obama became president, the number had risen to 422. In all, President Obama needs to appoint nearly 1,200 positions requiring Senate confirmation. The steady increase in the number of appointive positions worsens the logjam over time.
>> Bureaucratic inertia. One option to lessen the backlog would be for a presidential administration to create a tiered system of background checks, prioritizing the most important. But no administration has been willing to take that step because, in the words of a 2010 Brookings Institution study, “it would require the administration to make a series of judgments as to the importance and potential sensitivity of hundreds of positions.”
>> Vetting. As the Brookings study summarized, the vetting process includes “lengthy interviews, background checks, examinations of government computer records, completion of questionnaires and forms composed of hundreds of questions, FBI full-field investigations, public financial disclosure and conflicts-of-interest analysis.” The central aim is to try to deny political opponents any political ammunition. “Much of the process,” Brookings says, “is duplicated when a nomination goes to the Senate and is subjected to the confirmation process.”
>> Senate game-playing. Senators can place anonymous holds on appointments and insist that nominees be bombarded with an unmanageable volume of questions (1,000 questions for the Obama nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, for example; 444 for his nominee at the Treasury). The Senate refuses to reduce the number of confirmable positions. And then there is the arbitrariness of the Senate process. The Brookings study asked: “Does any other government require nominees to fill out an endless stream of duplicative financial and personal disclosure forms — and then hold a nominee accountable for missing a receipt for $12.59?”
Inefficiency, partisan warfare and delay are not virtues, and the White House and Senate need to move beyond the political warring to make progress on the confirmation process. A few worthy ideas:
Shorten the vetting forms. Prioritize to try to get higher-level positions filled first. Adopt the same forms for use by all Senate committees. Restrict the use of senatorial holds on nominations and reduce the number of positions that require Senate confirmation. Pare back the number of commissions in an effort to hold back the proliferation of appointments. When the presidency changes hands, begin the vetting of nominees for top-tier positions during the presidential transition period.
And, above all, end the partisan squabbling that’s paralyzing the confirmation process.