Appointment with Reform

The presidential appointment process is too slow, overly intrusive, excessively complex and must be reformed to restore integrity to the political process, a new report concludes.

The Twentieth Century Fund, a nonprofit, nonpartisan endowment that studies public policy, conducted a task force study of both the administration's selection process and the Senate's confirmation process. The task force, headed by former U.S. Senators John Culver, D-Iowa, and Charles Mathias, R-Md., concluded that the appointment process has become an "obstacle course," weakening the government's ability to attract highly qualified people to top level positions in the federal bureaucracy. Potential candidates do not want to put themselves through the costly and exhausting public scrutiny that now accompanies many political appointments.

"We all lose out when the structure no longer serves the public," Mathias said. "What could be worse for the democratic process than a system that discourages highly qualified people from public service and casts doubt on government's ability to function?"

The task force recommended several reforms:

  • Change the Senate confirmation process. Filibusters should not be allowed during confirmation debates on executive branch appointments. Lower-level non-controversial appointees should have their hearings waived. To protect the privacy of nominees, hearings should be closed when personal issues are discussed.
  • Reduce the number of presidential appointments. Almost 3,500 positions are now appointed by the president, and over 1,000 of those are subject to Senate confirmation. The task force recommended reducing the total number of appointments by one-third.
  • Expedite recruitment and nomination procedures. Presidential candidates should begin planning their staff during the campaign season. FBI investigations should be limited and the application process should be streamlined.
  • Be less hostile, more civil. Task force members said they were appalled by the aggressive and intrusive public probes into the lives of some nominees.
The report noted how long it now takes to fill some positions--it took President Bush a year to fill the position of commissioner at the Food and Drug Administration and nearly two years to assign a director to the Office of Energy Research.

One task force member, the Brookings Institution's Constance Horner, cautioned against closing off any of the confirmation process.

"I do not agree with the report's premise that there is or should be an inviolable 'zone of privacy' for nominees," Horner wrote. "From time to time, participants in the process have abused and maligned potential appointees. However, responsible inquiries into character have also identified serious evidence of unfitness to serve."

Richard C. Leone, president of the Twentieth Century Fund, said, "If we expect the best and brightest to agree to fill the role of public servant, the very least we should agree to do is treat them with a bit of decency."

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