Is Obama Using His Appointment Power Effectively?

Posted September 28, 2009 at 2:35pm

Eight months after President Barack Obama took the oath of office, more than half of the senior appointees who will execute his agenda have yet to be confirmed.

As of Sept. 16, the Senate had confirmed 231 of Obama’s senior appointments, while the president had announced or nominated another 70 that await confirmation. That leaves 198 open positions at the very top of federal agencies, advisory bodies and White House staff, according to data from the Washington Post.

The president got off to a fast start. He named Cabinet members faster than any recent president, but the pace slowed once he put top advisers in place. Senators have held up some nominees for confirmation hearings indefinitely, and the president has yet to announce hundreds of candidates for positions even though the Democrats control the Senate.

While it may be tempting to blame the president for the slack in confirmations, Obama is making appointments with roughly the same speed as his recent predecessors. The 9/11 commission famously criticized previous administrations for not having critical sub-Cabinet officials in place until the summer of 2001.

With foreign policy crises abroad and an economic crisis at home, Congress and the president should reform the appointee system to speed the confirmation process and give new administrations a running start.

Tension between the president and Congress over appointments is one of the checks and balances of the American system. The president nominates top officials in federal agencies, and the Senate is constitutionally bound to offer advice and consent. Reform should protect these checks to ensure that appointees are properly vetted, but speed up the process.

Positions without a confirmed appointee are usually called vacancies, but the term is a misnomer. Career bureaucrats usually manage the day-to-day affairs of an agency capably. Long-term projects, however, lose momentum without the stable leadership of confirmed appointees. Teamwork suffers when subordinates wait for a new appointee to take office three, six or 12 months later. In addition, the White House devotes enormous resources to searching for and vetting applicants, even as policy crises are brewing.

One reason that so many positions remain unfilled is that the difficulty and length of the nomination and confirmation process discourages some qualified candidates from being considered.

One recent potential nominee for a Homeland Security post confided privately: “There was no way I was going to put up with the nomination process and then leave my current job, and I know I wasn’t the first person they asked.— As a result, appointed positions sit vacant, or the president recruits the second- or third-best appointees.

Obama made ethics rules tougher by adding background checks as part of a campaign promise to improve ethics in government.

Contentious politics lead other positions to remain vacant. A single Senator held up Craig Fugate’s nomination as the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency for months not because of concerns about Fugate’s qualifications but because the Senator had a dispute with FEMA.

Finally, the proliferation of appointed positions makes putting a new administration in place more difficult. The process of tracking, vetting and filling appointments becomes a policy initiative unto itself.

Putting appointees in place early in an administration is important for effective government. Political appointees link the bureaucracy with the mandates of elected politicians. Appointees often bring tremendous energy, enthusiasm and expertise to their jobs. Their expertise is not always directly relevant to the position for which they are appointed, however. The learning curve for a senior position can be steep, and the time a position sits vacant or is held up by the Senate is time lost.

While Obama is making appointments at roughly the rate of his recent predecessors, the American people deserve better.

Reform is possible if Congress and the president summon the political will. One immediate remedy is to draw attention to the number of extended vacancies. The president could immediately designate an agency such as the Government Accountability Office to be responsible for reporting vacancies across agencies. Reporting would require only a small staff, especially if it could be supplemented with Wikipedia-style contributions from the White House and individual agencies.

Systematic reform will take longer but is no less essential. Congress could begin by reducing the number of appointed positions. While there are hundreds of senior appointees at the very top of agencies, there are thousands of positions requiring presidential nomination and Senate confirmation. Some of these positions are more technical than political or policymaking. These could be staffed by civil servants or be given a fast-track confirmation that reduces the paperwork and time until they take office. An independent commission responsible for eliminating appointed positions could be politically feasible if it were structured like an earlier commission responsible for submitting a list of proposed military base closures to Congress for an up-or-down vote.

Whatever the solutions — publicity, reducing the proliferation of appointees or providing a fast track — reform should begin by considering the role of appointees in the constitutional system of government. Appointees link the work of government in federal agencies to the politicians elected to oversee it. They are essential for providing direction in important policymaking positions, and those positions should be filled.

Obama may be doing no worse than his predecessors, but the country deserves better.

Patrick S. Roberts and Matthew Dull are assistant professors at the Center for Public Administration and Policy in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech University.