Confirmation Delays Pose Big Threat

Posted February 7, 2003 at 11:37am

In the State of the Union address, President Bush described how he reorganized government and created the new Department of Homeland Security to protect our country. He said the department “is mobilizing against the threats of a new era” and asked the House and Senate to join him in “the next bold steps to serve our fellow citizens.” But the new department won’t be able to mobilize without its staff in place to lead the effort, and the bold steps the president and Congress need to take are measures to reform the presidential appointments process.

The postponement of Tom Ridge’s confirmation hearing while waiting for the Senate to organize may be only the start of the delays in getting the department’s top people in place. The Senate unanimously confirmed him to be Homeland Security secretary Jan. 22; former Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) was confirmed the next day as undersecretary for border and transportation security and Deputy Secretary Gordon England a week later. The president thanked the Senate for its swift action, but if the past is any indication, it could take months to get the other 20 nominees needing Senate confirmation on the job.

So far the White House has announced nominees for eight of the 23 positions. The White House has rightly asserted that getting the right people for these jobs is the priority, not merely getting them in place quickly. But once the White House has identified a qualified candidate, many of the subsequent delays are unnecessary and time-consuming.

Bringing together 22 agencies with 170,000 employees will be a herculean task, and time is a crucial factor. The tragic loss of the space shuttle Columbia and the role the department is playing in response efforts underscores the urgency of staffing the department.

Some officials have expressed concern about exposing vulnerabilities and reducing effectiveness during this transition period, and that it will be difficult to determine where these lapses will occur. One easily identifiable weak spot is the slow and inefficient appointments process.

The department was officially launched Jan. 24 but won’t take over operational control of the agencies until March 1, making the next few weeks the ideal time to remove the barriers to quick confirmation.

The first thing the Senate can do is to act on the Presidential Appointments Improvement Act, which has been sitting on the legislative calendar since last May. This bipartisan legislation would streamline the financial disclosure reporting requirements for executive branch personnel, without compromising ethical standards.

As the new chairwoman of the Governmental Affairs Committee, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has the opportunity to follow the prompt confirmation hearing she oversaw for Ridge by moving the legislation forward. Collins could also spearhead much-needed change in Senate norms by encouraging adoption of a rule that all nominees will receive an up-or-down vote on their nomination within 45 days of the Senate receiving the nomination.

Senators could also agree to limit holds placed on nominations to only those directly related to an individual’s fitness to serve and eliminate the practice of delaying confirmations by holding nominees hostage in unrelated disputes. While working on the reorganization of the executive branch, the Senate should get its own house in order.

The White House should work with Congress to review appointed positions subject to FBI full-field investigations. Many of these positions have little or no national security implications and may not require a full investigation. The length and depth of the investigations should be tailored to meet the legitimate security concerns of the particular position. Director of Presidential Personnel Clay Johnson has advocated this approach, and implementing it through executive order would be a wonderful legacy for him.

Mobilizing the new Department of Homeland Security as quickly as possible so it can accomplish its mission has to be the most compelling reason there could be for taking long overdue action.

Leaders at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue must ensure that security is not delayed or denied.

Carole M. Plowfield is deputy director of the Presidential Appointee Initiative at the Brookings Institution.