Senate Can Help New President Get on His Feet

Posted September 12, 2008 at 2:46pm

For the first time in 48 years, a sitting U.S. Senator will soon become president. His first management challenge will be overseeing the transition and getting his leadership team in place and up to speed. It’s a critical test because getting the next president’s national security and economic teams in place by Inauguration Day is essential to the safety and security of all Americans.

Our enemies understand the turmoil that accompanies times of transition — and they seek to exploit it, as evidenced by the 1993 World Trade Center bombing only five weeks into President Bill Clinton’s first term, by the 2004 bombings in Madrid timed to disrupt elections and by the attempted attack by al-Qaida in London and Glasgow just two days after Gordon Brown was sworn in as Britain’s prime minister.

If history is prologue, beyond the Cabinet secretaries, most of the president’s leadership team will not be ready. On average, it takes more than a year for a new president to get all of his political appointees through the confirmation process — which includes selecting a candidate, vetting him or her, conducting a thorough FBI investigation, submitting the nomination to the appropriate Senate committee and surviving a Senate hearing. Despite general consensus that President George W. Bush’s transition was well-run, only 60 percent of his appointees were in office when the Pentagon and World Trade Center were attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. Our confirmation process for political appointees tends to reinforce negative perceptions that the government is sluggish and mired in petty politics.

There are three key actors that play essential roles in ensuring a smooth transition: the incoming administration, the outgoing administration and the Senate, whose advice and consent authority provides the vital last step in the process. In particular, Senate leaders Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — and the chairmen and ranking members of the Armed Services, Finance, Foreign Relations, Homeland Security and Judiciary committees — will be central to getting the next president’s national security and economic teams in position.

To ensure our nation’s leadership team is in place and prepared to confront a national crisis, we urge you to consider the following as you exercise your prerogatives:

Strike a Deal With the Incoming Administration. If the campaigns submit their candidates for major national security and economic posts to you by December, commit to getting them through the process to vote on Inauguration Day.

Simplify the Process. A lack of standardization undermines the entire confirmation process. Each committee uses a slightly different questionnaire with queries that include everything from honors and awards to speeches delivered in the past five years. Simplify and standardize the forms, allowing some committee-specific questions as an addendum, and make them available in electronic format so that data can be stored and repurposed by nominees, if necessary.

Demand Management Excellence. Executive branch employees, unlike federal judges or independent regulators, execute the policies of the president, and it is their competence that matters most. During the confirmation hearings and review process, focus your questions on the managerial experience, technical expertise and integrity of nominees, as these are the questions that will most inform you about the nominee’s fitness for the position.

Limit the Number of Senate-Confirmed Appointments. An astonishing 1,137 positions require Senate confirmation. Streamline the process so that only those jobs that are truly central to the functioning of the U.S. government require such enhanced scrutiny.

Some people believe it’s a good thing that no Senators have been elected president in nearly a half-century. They argue that legislators do not have the management experience to lead the executive branch. Acting on these recommendations and working with one of your former colleagues to ensure a smooth transition will help prove these skeptics wrong. More important, it will help improve the performance of our government in the critical first weeks and months of the next administration.

Max Stier is president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service. Howard Paster served as President Bill Clinton’s first director of legislative affairs.