Vote to streamline appointments could give agencies clarity

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., says bill is designed to “make oversight more effective.” Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., says bill is designed to “make oversight more effective.” Alex Brandon/AP
The Senate's June 29 vote to give up its confirmation powers for 170 presidentially appointed federal positions will speed the filling of vacancies and clarify for agency managers who is responsible for continuing unfilled slots, analysts tell Government Executive.

The bill, which was spearheaded by a bipartisan group of senators and backed by party leaders and passed 79-20, would remove what are primarily mid-level positions in finance and communications from the 1,400 slots that currently require Senate approval. A separate Senate resolution still pending would speed legislative processing of nominations for about 240 positions on part-time boards and commissions by allowing them to be confirmed by the committee with jurisdiction rather than the full Senate.

"The bill will improve accountability," said William Galston, a Brookings Institution scholar who worked on a study of the presidential appointments process and was consulted by Senate staff before the June vote. "If these 170 positions can be filled by the president acting alone, then, other things being equal, the managers of departments and agencies should be able to expect a more nearly complete team on the scene. "Positions will be filled faster at the beginning of a president's term and when there are vacancies," he added. "And if a lot of positions remain open, it will be clear that the problem is that the White House is slow or there's disagreement between the White House and an agency."

Donald Kettl, dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, also welcomed the bill (S. 679). "Everyone agrees that we simply have far too many political appointees, and that the reach of political appointments is getting worse as it reaches more deeply into the federal bureaucracy," he said. "The constant churn goes ever deeper, making it harder to focus agencies and get them moving, and it gets harder to assemble the expertise needed to accomplish government's work."

Kettl said there is still a need for "political appointees at the top of agencies to ensure a strong bridge between the electorate and the president and the president's work to manage the government. But we long ago crossed the line into an overload of political appointees."

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who as ranking member of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee helped introduce the bill in March, said the legislation is designed "to make oversight more effective. If we were to propose using advice and consent for every Senate staff member, for every agricultural extension service member, and every forest ranger, that would be less oversight, because we wouldn't have time to do anything else. That, in effect, is what we are doing now with advice and consent by the bucket-load of officer corps members and of part-time advisory commission members whom the president can vet and appoint, and all of whom report to somebody over whom we do have advise-and-consent control."

Under the bill, which must still clear the House to become law, those jobs no longer subject to Senate approval would include such positions as the Agriculture Department's rural utilities service administrator, the Commerce Department's chief scientist for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Corporation for National and Community Service's managing director of the National and Community Service Act.

The board slots no longer needing confirmation under the pending resolution would include appointees to the Advisory Board for Cuba Broadcasting, the National Council for the Arts and the Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation Advisory Board.

To reduce the much-lamented paperwork burden on nominees preparing for confirmation battles, the bill would establish a working group to identify reforms. It would be composed of designees from the Office of Presidential Personnel, Office of Personnel Management, Office of Government Ethics and the FBI. It would consult with the Senate and report recommendations in 90 days.

The bill does not go far enough, in the view of Carol A. Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association. "Improvements in management will come when they reduce the actual number of political appointees, in addition to the number that have to be confirmed," she told Government Executive. "Our concern is sheer number of political appointees, and the proliferation of appointed positions that formerly were career Senior Executive Service."

She cited a 2003 study showing that "when President Kennedy came to office in 1960, he had 286 positions to fill in the ranks of secretary, deputy secretary, undersecretary, assistant secretary and administrator -- the principal leadership positions in the executive branch. By the end of the Clinton administration, there were 914 positions with these titles."

Galston, who with colleague E.J. Dionne met with Senate staff to seek ways to ease the political infighting around presidential nominations, said, "When people on both sides of the aisle are committed to getting something done, including staff, they can move mountains, even in these polarized times." He said he sensed a genuine commitment to action from both the staff and senators who were laboring under a tight deadline: "It's a happy story in a generally dysfunctional political environment."

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