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."

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.