The Executive Legislator
Can President-elect Obama's Senate background grease the wheels of the confirmation process?
The selection and confirmation of political appointees is one of the first, and arguably one of the most daunting, tasks that a president must face. The process involves filling about 4,000 political slots, including more than 1,000 that the Senate must confirm. As a sitting senator turned president-elect, the first since John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama could ease the process for his appointees with his legislative credentials.
The Senate vets presidential appointments to high-level positions in the Cabinet departments, independent agencies and regulatory commissions, as well ambassadors, federal judges, U.S. attorneys and marshals, and Supreme Court justices. Ninety-nine percent of presidential appointments are approved, according to the Senate's online overview of the process. The chamber rejected proposed Cabinet officials only three times in the 20th century. Fewer than 30 other major nominees were rejected.
Nonetheless, the extensive process of selecting and confirming nominees often is cited as the biggest impediment to getting a full federal force in place quickly after Inauguration Day. Nominations are referred to the committee with jurisdiction over the position or its agency.
Sometimes multiple committees will examine a nomination, one after the other. Confirmation hearings are held for the most senior and most controversial nominees, giving senators a chance to question candidates. They also offer a forum for political posturing, which can lengthen an already tedious process.
Filling political government positions quickly reduces security vulnerabilities during a transition and allows the new president to move ahead on pressing problems and his mandates. "There is a whole bunch of discussion about the honeymoon and the hundred days after inauguration, but the reality is that [President-elect Obama] is going to be hamstrung in his ability to take advantage of that honeymoon and that hundred-day period without having a substantially accelerated process that has never been seen before," says Max Stier, president and chief executive officer of the Partnership for Public Service.
Early and unprecedented efforts by the Bush administration and Obama's pre-election transition work have made government observers optimistic about the possibility of a smooth baton pass. The president-elect's Senate background also could speed the process. Familiarity with the rules and mores of the chamber could give Obama an edge, Stier says, as well as his tenure as a colleague in a tight-knit institution.
"The Senate operates a lot on the basis of personal relationships. It's a small enough body that they know each other, that they trust each other and they have the capacity of making things easier or harder depending on the level of trust that they have," he says. "The fact that Sen. Obama . . . knows the institution, [is] cognizant of its rules and of the prerogatives of the individual members, is something that will matter."
Obama knows who is important during the confirmation process, Stier says, and as a result, will spend less time courting party leaders like Sens. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and more time with committee chairs and senior members such as Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, ranking member of the Finance Committee. "They're the folks who ultimately own the process that's necessary to go through for confirmation, more than the majority and minority leaders," he says.
Michael A. Kirby, former deputy undersecretary of the Army and senior business adviser for BearingPoint's Public Services practice, is skeptical that Obama's senator status will have a big effect on the confirmation process. "Generally, the people teed up to be confirmed are some known commodity to someone on the legislative side, so it really is a matter of character and experience and agenda that will be the determining things," he says. "I don't think there is any free ride in it."
Much of the onus falls on Obama to fill crucial positions, but credit-or blame-also will rest with the Senate. In previous transitions Cabinet appointments were a priority, but Stier says there are numerous slots further down the bureaucratic food chain that must be filled urgently, to deal with the economic bailout, in particular. After the Treasury secretary was confirmed in January 2001, it took until August to fill the deputy secretary position.
"We can't wait for that right now," he says. "At Treasury we don't just need a secretary and a deputy secretary, you also need the undersecretary for domestic finance, you need the general counsel, probably need your assistant secretary for congressional affairs. So there are both managerial and professional positions like the general counsel as well as subject matter experts-policy people-that you need. So you quickly see that to do this right you need to get people in these key agencies."