Bloomberg News

Will Senate Confirmation Gridlock Finally End?: Margaret Carlson

June 30, 2011

June 30 (Bloomberg) -- Harry Reid, the Senate’s Democratic leader, and Mitch McConnell, his Republican counterpart, can barely agree that the sun sets in the west.

Yet the process for confirming presidential appointees has become so crippling to Republican and Democratic administrations alike that the two partisan warhorses have just led the Senate to adopt bipartisan legislation to ease the trauma.

It’s rare for the Senate to vote 79-20 on anything. But the final tally on Wednesday in favor of the Presidential Appointment Efficiency and Streamlining Act of 2011 was a measure of how bad the confirmation process has become. It takes a village of accountants and lawyers to help a nominee fill out all the forms and make it through the political equivalent of a strip search.

Nancy Brinker, chief executive officer of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, survived one vetting to become ambassador to Hungary from 2001 to 2003. But when President George W. Bush appointed her to be White House chief of protocol in 2007, she discovered she had to go through it all again. “You are presumed guilty until you get the job,” she said. With nothing more sinister than “two parking tickets and a friendly divorce” in her background, Brinker spent eight months filling out new forms and answering old questions.

Limping Along

The process drains energy and life from each new administration, leaving it limping along for months, even years, without a full team of senior officials staffing the government. The Washington Post reported that at the end of 2010 -- almost two years after President Barack Obama’s inauguration -- 22 percent of administration positions requiring Senate confirmation were either vacant or filled temporarily by acting officials. During the swine flu outbreak in April 2009, there was no one at the helm of the Department of Health and Human Services. When a terrorist tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner in December 2009, the designated director of the Transportation Security Administration was unconfirmed.

A Senate grilling is not the beginning of the confirmation process -- it’s the end. It follows vetting by the White House, FBI, Office of Government Ethics and Office of Personnel Management. According to one report, a nominee endures 156 questions, with subparts adding up to 965 questions in all.

A total of 3,338 pieces of information, ranging from the intimate to the absurd, is required. That includes every address, phone number and relationship a nominee has had in the previous 15 years, along with the name of every foreigner met abroad. Imagine what that means for a nominee like Assistant Secretary of State Robert Hormats, a former investment banker who spent decades acquiring contacts around the world.

Mission Creep

Over the years there has been a kind of mission creep on subcabinet positions. Although more and more appointees got the full confirmation Monty, it was applied inconsistently. The legislative affairs officer at the Department of Transportation, for example, requires Senate confirmation. The head of information technology for the government -- who spends about $60 billion a year -- does not.

There are currently 1,200 executive-branch posts that require confirmation. The Senate bill exempts 169 of them, which is a start. In addition, it would cut in half the number of written questions and provide a digital “smart form” that could be shared by all investigators. (Currently, after a nominee is vetted by executive branch agencies, the pertinent Senate committee starts the process all over again from scratch.)

Partisan Gauntlet

To win confirmation as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton had to produce a veritable autobiography -- even though she’d already been first lady and a senator herself. That wouldn’t change under the legislation, which preserves the Senate’s right to fully scrutinize nominees for senior policy-making positions.

Similarly, there’s no guarantee that a highly qualified candidate -- think Peter Diamond, who won the Nobel Memorial Prize in economics and recently withdrew his nomination to join the Federal Reserve Board -- would find it any easier getting through the partisan gantlet. In fact, having been relieved of the duty to grill a couple hundred small fish, senators might find more time to concentrate on the catch of the day.

Ornery Senators

The new legislation, which is expected to sail through approval in the House and gain a quick signature from

the president, originated in a 20-member bipartisan commission under the auspices of the Aspen Institute and Rockefeller Foundation. That group, whose chairmen included former Senators Bill Frist and Charles Robb, worked with a bipartisan group of senators appointed by Reid and McConnell to draft the bill. Its passage represents quite an accomplishment. After all, few things are more difficult than trying to crimp a senator’s prerogative to be ornery.

(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

For more Bloomberg View columns.

--Editors: Francis Wilkinson, Stacey Shick

Click on “Send Comment” in sidebar display to send a letter to the editor.

To contact the writer on this story: Margaret Carlson in Washington at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor on this story: Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net.


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