Flu Raises Doubts About Continuity and Confirmations

Posted April 28, 2009 at 5:19pm

The possible flu pandemic has become the story of the month. The danger of a massive outbreak is palpable.

[IMGCAP(1)]So imagine if swine flu swept through Congress, not an outlandish scenario given the close contact Members have with one another and the possible exposure of one or more Members through international travel or constituent contacts. The Congressional physician has sounded the alarm, calling for extraordinary precautions.

What if 300 Members of the House and 70 Senators caught the flu big-time — and found themselves in hospitals, maybe in intensive care, for days, weeks or longer, maybe with a number of casualties? That would mean no quorum, and no Congress — in the midst of a possible nationwide disaster, maybe a global catastrophe.

Could the country function if we needed emergency appropriations or other emergency legislation? Yes, under a form of martial law. Is that what the country wants, needs or deserves?

Last week, in a déjà vu all over again episode, a small plane strayed into Capitol air space, causing yet another bout of panic, with good parts of Congress shutting down and a high alert triggered. Seven and a half years after 9/11, Congress showed it has learned nothing. The Capitol Police still operate with an antiquated radio system and the game plan for disaster can be expressed in four succinct words: “Run for your lives!—

It is shocking that no leader in either chamber of Congress in either party has assumed his or her fiduciary responsibility to do something to ensure that Congress can function through a catastrophe, whether caused by terrorism or epidemic. At some point in our lifetimes, that catastrophe will occur, and the judgment of history on the Speaker, the Senate Majority Leader and their colleagues and counterparts will be appropriately harsh if they do not get on the stick and finally grapple with this set of issues.

The flu pandemic has also highlighted another set of problems, those surrounding the nomination and confirmation process for executive appointees. One hundred days into the Obama presidency, not a single health official with responsibility for a pandemic has been confirmed by the Senate.

It is undeniably true that the Obama administration has moved more rapidly and impressively to get its team in place than any recent presidency, including the previous leader Ronald Reagan. But that is not good enough given the challenges facing the country at home and abroad. We needed to come close to the goal of getting the top 100 or 200 political appointees in the homeland security (including health-related), national security and economic areas in place by the end of the first 100 days, and we are not anywhere in the neighborhood.

The problems exist at every level of the nomination and confirmation process. The Obama team set the bar very high with its rhetoric about ethical standards; early hassles with Cabinet nominees Timothy Geithner and Tom Daschle caused a rewind on the vetting of a number of other appointees, slowing things down and causing some putative candidates to drop out with potential tax or conflict-of-interest issues.

Even so, the Obama personnel office has moved quickly enough to identify and begin the vetting process for a substantial number of key nominees, but the process has been clogged by other obstacles in the vetting process, especially the FBI background checks required of every Senate confirmable nominee. Those checks, with the same extensiveness for minor posts and commissions as for Cabinet and top national security ones, create a major roadblock even if the number of nominees ready to go is high — imagine a gallon of water trying to move rapidly through a pipeline the width of an eyedropper.

Then there is the Senate. To this point, the usual problem that is characteristic of the modern Senate — lots of nominees in limbo for long periods by individual Senators’ holds — has not been a dominant one. Not that it has disappeared as an issue; the top Obama science nominees were delayed unconscionably by holds based on utterly unrelated issues, and the key post of chairman of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission is hanging fire because of a hold. But the big roadblocks in the Senate are going to emerge a bit down the road, when another raft of nominees is ready for confirmation and the opportunities for mischief will increase — especially because there are far too many posts requiring Senate confirmation.

What is to be done? In the short run, the Senate should find a way to get appointees in place provisionally when there is a pressing national need, as there is now with the flu problem, with the formal and regular confirmation process to take place in due course. We need the Senate especially to step up to the plate for the good of the country and do a top-to-bottom review of the process and then move to expedite it. We need to change the security clearance process, with the full check for the most important posts but something less strenuous for the FBI and other agencies, not to mention for the nominees for less significant positions.

Think about the contrast between head of the CIA and assistant secretary of Education for public affairs; do we need the same full-bore background check for both? And the same for members of part-time advisory committees or scholarship programs?

We also need to change the ridiculous practice that if someone has gone through the full, rigorous review for one post in government and switches to another — say, from CIA director to intelligence chief — the background check has to be redone in full, not just for the time between one appointment and the next.

We need to do a full review of the multiple forms that nominees have to fill out, at every stage of the process, often with different categories of the same information, making a difficult process even more vexing and cumbersome. We can standardize the forms and the information. That would include a standard form for all Senate committees, instead of the polyglot we have now. And ideally, we could get a commitment from Senate leaders in both parties to expedite the hearing and vote process for all nominees except the tiny number that are highly controversial.

If the Senate were truly responsible (and gutsy), it would cut the number of appointees requiring confirmation by at least a third, cutting back especially on the advisory committees and other more superfluous posts. If the administration were gutsy, it would recommend reducing the number of presidential appointments, which has created the phenomenon scholar Paul Light calls “the thickening of government.—

The problems in the nomination and confirmation process have been building for 30 years, and were not resolved before the presidential cycle or during the transition. But it is vitally important to deal with this problem for the next round of nominees. With multiple crises at home and abroad, we cannot afford business as usual, or simply a slight improvement therein.

Norman Ornstein is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.