Solutions offered to reduce delays in confirming presidential appointees

The government should tap expertise from the Office of Personnel Management and private sector headhunters for recruiting and background checks to accelerate the drawn-out and politically charged process for Senate approval of presidential appointees, says a study released Tuesday by two Brookings Institution scholars.

Titled "A Half-Empty Government Can't Govern: Why Everyone Wants to Fix the Appointments Process, Why It Never Happens and How We Can Get It Done," the paper written by William A. Galston and E.J. Dionne Jr. comes at a time when partisan delays in the Senate confirmation process -- through filibusters, holds and extended background checks on nominees -- have become "routinized" as a means for continuing policy fights, the two said.

"By the 18-month mark of Obama's presidency, a quarter of the key policymaking positions in government were still vacant. And at the time of the midterm elections, close to 20 percent of such positions were unfilled," the report said, though the scholars stressed the problem occurs during Republican and Democratic administrations.

"In today's polarized environment, the workarounds" the White House resorts to mean that "Congress loses oversight and the executive branch loses effectiveness," Galston told reporters before the report's release. What the press often misses, he added, is the nomination portion eats up three or four times the time used for the confirmation portion -- in part because the administration dreads the intense media scrutiny and the increased visibility of candidate lapses such as sexual misconduct, or failure to pay all taxes owed. "It's a pretty crazy way to run a government," Dionne said.

Recent examples the two provided include the way Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who in early 2009 was "home alone" confronting the worst economic crisis in 70 years, "was functioning for months without any senior deputies while taking on incoming missiles," Galston said. A second example is the Obama team's "heroic, but spotty" efforts to ease the home foreclosure crisis, which "could have been more effective if they'd had a full complement."

Though acknowledging the problem has been discussed at length in earlier studies, the Brookings team said their value-add in this report was distinguishing between "low-hanging fruit" -- relatively easy solutions the president could implement singlehandedly -- and the "heavy lifts" requiring more political compromise and shifts in incentives.

Examples of easier fixes include shortening and simplifying the personal data form for nominees; expediting background checks on veteran nominees by ending the practice of starting the process from scratch for those vetted during a previous nomination; creating a tiered vetting system that mandates increasing levels of rigor depending on the job's sensitivity; and adopting procedures that allow an incoming administration to beef up the vetting workforce, perhaps calling back retired FBI agents to conduct checks.

Tougher solutions could include ending Senate holds, forcing a time limit on Senate committee consideration, or countering the decades-long "thickening of government" by requiring the president to eliminate perhaps one position requiring Senate confirmation for every new one added. The conflict persists, Dionne said, because Congress wants accountability and the executive branch wants to control the bureaucracy, and "confirmed nominees carry more prestige within agencies."

Many technically oriented positions could be removed from the confirmation wars, the scholars said, if the administration agreed to have the officials testify before Congress on request.

The report's release was timed for the incoming Congress' "promising new window," Galston said. As Republicans in the Senate eye prospects for becoming the majority in 2013, he added, some might consider whether they "want to have done unto us what we have done unto them."

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