Bush Willing to Help With Transition; What About the Senate?

Posted October 29, 2008 at 4:13pm

First, a bit of good news. The reports that Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) is heading back to D.C. to work on his health reform initiative and to vote in the lame-duck session are wonderful and encouraging. Nothing could be a bigger boost to getting things done in the remainder of this year and the crucial period in January than an active and engaged Ted Kennedy. May he thrive through the excitement and energy ahead.

[IMGCAP(1)]Moving on. Five days before the most interesting election I can ever remember, most people are focusing on Tuesday. I am, too — but I must confess I am just as focused on the day after and what will follow.

Earlier this week, I met with President Bush’s Transition Coordinating Council, the first serious and formal effort by an outgoing president to make the transition smooth and seamless. I wrote earlier about how pleased I was that Bush and his chief of staff, Josh Bolten, who is chairing the council, had signaled their commitment to make this work. After meeting with the full council, I am even more delighted at the administration’s across-the board commitment.

Everyone inside, and a group of people outside, are aiming to get the top 100 presidential appointees in national security, homeland security and finance areas nominated, vetted and confirmed in a matter of days or weeks following the Jan. 20 inauguration. That is not usually a problem for Cabinet members; presidents-elect focus early on picking them, and getting them through the labyrinth is usually — barring an ethics issue or other glitch — fairly expeditious. It is rare, however, to have many of their key supporting personnel (from deputy, under- and assistant secretaries to the next layer down) chosen quickly and also moving through smoothly. But to make any part of the process work requires not just the department heads but also their critical team players.

The council, of course, is focused on the nomination and vetting elements, as well as making sure that potential appointees are briefed and prepared as much as possible to assume their jobs and get going immediately. But another piece of this, and one outside the administration’s control, is confirmation by the Senate.

When it comes to the Cabinet, the Senate has been exemplary in recent past transitions: As soon as the nominees come down, the relevant committees have acted with dispatch, holding hearings and getting ready to do confirmations soon after the inauguration — for many of them, that very afternoon.

But what happens when we go from 15 or so people to 100? The Senate has to wait until the nominees clear the White House, a procedure that includes filing extensive financial disclosure forms, as well as the FBI clearance processes. And then the Senate has to do its own digging, through its own version of the financial disclosure forms. But this transition, unlike previous ones, requires a major additional commitment, on the part of both parties’ leaders and especially on the part of key committee chairmen in the critical areas, including Armed Services, Homeland Security, Finance, Banking, Foreign Relations, Intelligence, Budget and other panels.

Many more confirmation hearings will be needed, in December to clear the decks for important posts, and again in January, especially during the two weeks from the day the electoral votes are certified to the 20th itself. Of course, December and those two weeks in January are usually times when the Senate is on a break, with its Members vacationing, traveling around the world or back in their home states. It will take real willpower to change the normal schedule and overcome ingrained habits to stick around and do confirmation hearings.

There is more. Huge staff resources will need to be committed to processing the nominations and preparing for the hearings, on the part of committee staffs and committee members’ personal staffs. And the chairmen and ranking members should also work with the Senate leaders to make the lives of nominees less cumbersome, by having standardized disclosure forms across all committees — many nominees have to be confirmed by two or more panels — and by working to coordinate forms and the various categories of income and assets with those used within the executive branch. Currently, nominees have the agony comparable to high school seniors having to fill out 20 different college applications, each by hand, with minor variations in the questions and the way to answer them. Colleges and universities saw this unnecessary burden and created a common form — why can’t the Senate do the same?

Finally, the Senate has to grow up and make a commitment not to use frivolous holds on these top and critical appointees for political gain, as hostages for commitments from the new president and administration, or out of partisan pique. There may well be a nominee, or several, who have real ethical issues, or who generate genuine and meaningful opposition for real reasons, where delays or votes against are reasonable. But many do not fall into that column. Save those for more minor nominations after the critical period of the first few months of a new presidency.

Key figures in the Senate, from Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) to Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), from Carl Levin (D-Mich.) to Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), from Kit Bond (R-Mo.) to Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.), have to belly up to the bar here, for the good of the country, and pledge to do everything necessary to get the full team of top appointees in critical areas in place by February at the latest. Here is a chance for the Senate to shine. Don’t disappoint us.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.