Coming soon: The 2011 version of legislation to speed presidential appointments

Senate panel explores decades-old problem of confirmation stalemates characterized by paperwork overload and politics among lawmakers.

Legislation aimed at reducing the number of presidential appointments requiring Senate confirmation will be unveiled next week, Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, announced on Wednesday.

At a hearing called to confront the age-old problem of too many top agency positions sitting vacant while the Senate ignores or blocks action on the president's nominees, senators and witnesses alike acknowledged that reforming the process is an uphill battle.

"Nominations have become a very convenient tool to push a political agenda that often has absolutely nothing to do with the nomination," former Senate parliamentarian Robert Dove testified.

"I know Senators are loath to give up a power position," Dove added. But he said he was encouraged by recent cooperation on the matter between Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who this January appointed Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., of the Rules Committee to draft legislation to improve the confirmation process.

"We've known about this problem for years, but failed to act," Lieberman said, noting the committee he now chairs held similar hearings in 2001. Wednesday's hearing brought out a variety of possible reforms to the appointment process, but focused largely on reducing the number of positions requiring confirmation and simplifying paperwork. The number of positions that require Senate confirmation has ballooned in the past 50 years, from 286 when President Kennedy took office in 1961 to some 1,200 positions today, according to the National Commission on the Public Service and the Congressional Research Service.

"The large number of positions requiring confirmation can lead to long delays in selecting, vetting and nominating these appointees," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. Collins and Lieberman both said streamlining and consolidating the number multitude of forms nominees are required to fill out could speed the vetting process. "A 'smart form' could be developed and put into use which allowed nominees to answer one way, one time each of the White House, FBI, Diplomatic Security, [Office of Government Ethics] and Senate personal background questions," said Clay Johnson III, who was deputy director for management at OMB during the George W. Bush administration.