Ex-appointees seek overhaul of confirmation process

As the Bush administration prepares to name more than two dozen appointees to newly created posts at the Homeland Security Department, a group of former appointees is pressuring the administration and Congress to streamline the appointments process.

The Presidential Appointee Initiative at the Brookings Institution has gathered 221 signatures on an open letter that asks President Bush and the 108th Congress to overhaul the nomination and confirmation process. Some of the appointees who signed the letter served as far back as the Nixon administration.

With the administration gearing up to staff the Homeland Security Department, the bipartisan request could not be more timely, said Paul Light, who heads the Presidential Appointee Initiative.

"If we're serious about attracting the most talented appointees in the future, we need to reform the process," Light said.

The Homeland Security Department will have 28 new presidential appointees, and 23 of them will need to go through the Senate confirmation process, according to Brookings' calculations. Right now, the process takes an average of four months, not including the vetting process candidates undergo prior to a formal nomination, Light said.

Senators on both sides of the aisle have been increasingly guilty of slowing the appointment process by placing 'holds' on candidates for purely political reasons, Light said.

"There seems to be a continual lowering of the threshold for the use of holds," he said. 'This is a process that gets a little worse with each administration."

Doris Meissner, the commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service under President Clinton, said that she has no "personal resentment" about her own appointment process, which took about seven months. But that is too long for the Bush administration to wait, because it needs to bring on new talent to lead the Homeland Security Department as quickly as possible.

The letter suggests several reforms aimed at creating a faster, less intimidating and less invasive appointment process. It asks for the administration and lawmakers to provide guidance for appointees on financial disclosure forms, calls for twice-monthly status reports on nominations, and calls for senators to pledge to keep allegations about nominees' personal character private and to guarantee they will issue a confirmation decision no more than 45 days after a formal nomination.

In addition, the letter asks that political appointees be paid relocation benefits similar to those offered to Senior Executive Service members. It also suggests that the salaries of appointees be on par with salaries offered in academia or at nonprofit organizations.

Light said the letter is not intended as a criticism of the Bush administration, but as a reminder that the appointments process has long been in need of improvement. Former appointees signed and sent a similar letter about a year and a half ago.

The Senate Governmental Affairs committee last March approved a bill aimed at making the appointment process run more smoothly, but the bill never made it to the Senate floor for a vote.

The bill (S. 1811), sponsored by Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., would have reduced financial reporting requirements for nominees and cut down on redundant information the candidates must provide. The legislation also asked each agency for a list of presidential appointees in hopes of finding ways to cut the number of positions requiring Senate approval.

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