Audition Time

mericans have always taken pride in peacefully transferring power from one administration to another. But this year, the transition got off to a rocky start with lawyers and elections officials struggling to figure out just who won the presidential election.

Indeed, the virtual dead heat between Texas Gov. George Bush and Vice President Al Gore in the pivotal state of Florida was still being sorted out by a recount when this issue of Government Executive went to press. Although there is never a shortage of candidates eager to fill prestigious government posts in any new administration, the absence of a clear popular mandate for the incoming administration may temper the customary enthusiasm that surrounds the quest for Cabinet posts and other key positions. The prospect of working with a Congress closely divided along party lines is also sobering.

Even when a President roars into office with a substantial margin of victory, the new chief executive faces serious obstacles in recruiting talented aides and advisers. Many experts now believe that these impediments have become unduly severe.

Despite recent talk of downsizing government, the number of political posts has grown. Some 6,000 presidential appointments are on the slate, including roughly 600 that require Senate confirmation.

Recent administrations have struggled-and frequently failed-to position all their players in a timely fashion or to properly screen them. Often, the process is sabotaged by partisan foes in the Senate or inflammatory news coverage by a media eager to exploit the slightest whiff of conflict or scandal. Even under the best of circumstances, political appointments involve an obstacle course of time-consuming and duplicative reporting requirements and investigations that seem designed to disparage and humiliate those who submit to them.

A bipartisan task force gathered by the Twentieth Century Fund (now the Century Foundation) found in 1996 that "many talented and honorable candidates for office decide against serving because of the intrusiveness of the process." According to Colby College Professor G. Calvin Mackenzie, a participant in the study, "in our zeal to produce a government that is scandal-proof and error-proof, we have created a recruiting process that is counterproductive to national needs."

Earlier this year, the Brookings Institution's Presidential Appointee Initiative concluded from a survey of more than 400 senior appointees from the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations that the nomination and confirmation process "exacts a heavy toll," leaving nominees "exhausted, embarrassed and confused." Commenting on the survey, Paul C. Light of Brookings and Virginia L. Thomas of the Heritage Foundation noted that the process favors repeat performances by former government officials rather than newcomers with fresh perspectives. "Presidents know that people from inside the [Capital] Beltway and with prior government experience are the most likely to survive the presidential appointments process," wrote Light and Thomas. "[But] those individuals may not represent the kind of citizen servants the founders hoped would lead the government."

The so-called "confirmation clog" also alarms the American Enterprise Institute's Norman Ornstein and former Clinton State Department official Thomas Donilon. Writing in the December issue of Foreign Affairs, they say, "finding top-flight people to serve in government for brief periods in their professional lives has always been a challenge. But, in recent years, the challenge has transformed into a nearly insurmountable one, especially for posts below the prestige level of the Cabinet." Ornstein and Donilon cited no "qualitative evidence of a drastic drop-off in the recruitment of America's best and brightest to top public policy positions." But, they noted, "every available bit of anecdotal evidence suggests that the recruitment problem has mushroomed into a recruitment crisis."

A Brookings Institution study this year by political scientists Joel D. Aberbach and Bert A. Rockman, "In the Web of Politics: Three Decades of the U.S. Federal Executive," asserted that the caliber of presidential appointees, when judged by their educational achievements, has slipped. "Where there has been a decline, it is most marked among the politically appointed executives rather than the civil service," they said. Congress acted this year to provide a better orientation for incoming appointees, but deferred the question of simplifying compliance with financial disclosure requirements by asking the Office of Government Ethics to conduct a study. Acknowledging that current requirements impose burdens and create delays, authors of the legislation to reform the process expressed hope that "the current disclosure process can be improved through careful streamlining, coordination and elimination of duplication without lessening the substantive compliance with any conflict of interest requirement."

For the new President, the task of choosing key administration players and quickly getting them into position can be formidable. The difficulty may be compounded by the uncertainty over which party will control the Senate. It's not only the folks auditioning for high-powered positions who are on trial, the presidential appointments system is as well.