One does not need to know much about the federal appointments and confirmation process to understand it is broken. We just know: Every time there is a new administration, no one can understand why it takes so long for the new president to fill his team and take full control of the reins of government. By March of 2009, news emerged of trouble at the US Treasury Department. While major actions were being taken domestically and abroad to combat the financial crisis, progress was bogged down by a serious leadership vacuum. Despite being three months into the new Obama administration, too few senior staff were in place to manage the massive workload—bank bailouts, loan restructuring, coordinating policy with foreign governments. While the administration performed admirably in quickly placing its seniormost key officials, such as Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, it was unable to fill the positions of supporting deputies and staff expeditiously. For much of the first year of Obama’s presidency, Geithner was, as the Financial Times put it, "home alone" in the Treasury Department.
As troubling as this and similar cases may be, these failures are considered normal during
presidential transitions, almost a "rite of passage." In fact, President Obama was commended for quickly assembling his team of top officials, Geithner among them, planning for transition even prior to his election. Nevertheless, Obama faced the same slow process as other recent presidents in positioning his supporting officials, who carry out the vital day-to-day activities of management and policy setting. For much of his first year, Obama, like his predecessors, had to contend with high vacancy rates across the government— initially above 50 percent in many places.
This is the result of the broken appointments process. On average, only around 35 percent of the 100 most-needed presidential appointees are nominated and confirmed by May 1st—fully 100 days into a new administration. While cabinet secretaries and heads of major agencies are typically in office within a few days following Inauguration, they have too few of the senior staff needed to be able to lead effectively. Even by the August congressional recess—about 200 days into a new administration—30 percent of key agency management and national security officials remain unfilled.
Why does all this matter? Unfortunately, Secretary Geithner’s lonely struggle against global financial collapse is just one of many examples of the consequences of the broken appointments process. Presidential appointees provide essential leadership and policy direction for the civil and military services—they run the daily machinery of the federal government. It is not just department secretaries and agency heads that are vital. These leaders need their department heads, management, budget, legal, legislative and public communications officials. These are the individuals who help respond to emergencies; set new priorities; work with other agencies, Congress, and state, local and foreign governments; and communicate with the American people. As for the initial absence of key national security officials typical of presidential transitions, the 9/11 commission warned in its report: "Since a catastrophic attack could occur with little or no notice, we should minimize as much as possible the disruption of national security policymaking during the change of administrations by accelerating the process for national security appointments."
Why does this happen? Yes, political disputes and the increasingly common use of the "hold"—a senatorial procedure blocking individual confirmation—play a significant role, as do differences of opinion over the qualification of particular nominees. But the most significant part of the delay is caused by systemic shortcomings that can and should be remedied—all without interfering with the political nature of our system of government or the prerogatives of the president or the Senate.
At the heart of the problem is a misallocation of resources, resulting in a lack of systematic capacity. For instance, the White House Office of Presidential Personnel, which handles the initial vetting process for nominees, usually employs the same number of staff at the beginning of the administration as it does at the end, because that was what previous administrations had done. This works for most of the administration's term as nominees simply fill newly vacated positions.
However, the Office is simply incapable of handling the massive burden it faces at the start—the need to vet thousands of required nominations following inauguration, hundreds of them for critical positions. No modern president has set a goal of fielding his cabinet and subcabinet within the first 200 days of the first year, for instance, and assembled the resources and manpower to accomplish the goal. Reform must begin with a commitment to accomplish a specific staffing level within a reasonably aggressive timeframe.
In addition to these problems of capacity, nominees themselves face an unnecessarily onerous personal burden in accepting the call to public service. Each step presents a new set of forms, which ask many of the same questions already asked earlier in the process. It is no wonder that some question the government’s ability to attract the best and brightest to serve.
Knowing this, what needs to be done? To start, priority should be set for the most important, time-sensitive positions. New presidents need to decide which positions are the most time sensitive for their administrations, based on their current priorities and challenges. Timelines need to be drawn to set expectations for specific dates by which these appointments should be made.
The people filling the 100-plus most time sensitive presidentially appointed positions should be nominated by February at the beginning of each term, and should be confirmed and in place by May 1st, 100 days after the President's inauguration. Including those, the 400 most time-sensitive positions should be nominated by early June, such that it is reasonable to expect them to be confirmed by the August congressional recess, about 200 days into a new administration. New presidents will decide which positions are the most time-sensitive for their administrations, based on their priorities and the current challenges and opportunities awaiting them.
Planning for transition—and the critical personnel work to be done—needs to start much earlier, well before Election Day. In 2008, both Barack Obama and John McCain began preparing for presidential transitions significantly earlier in their campaigns than any previous candidates. The Obama administration was then able to nominate, and have confirmed, more appointees in its first 100 days than any other administration in recent times. For the most part, presidential candidates devote too little pre-election attention to the transition—and the hundreds of required appointments—in the event they win the election.
Instead, all viable presidential candidates should formally commit to make it a priority to fill positions by specific deadlines. They should commit sufficient personnel and resources separate from their campaigns to begin substantial planning for a presidential transition and selection of appointees at least four months before the election. Following an election, the president elect must quickly assemble a presidential personnel office for the transition and first six months of the administration that can handle twice the volume as those of recent new administrations to meet the earlier deadlines. For our part—the public—we should better understand and appreciate that a candidate "measuring the drapes in the Oval Office" is acting out of responsibility, not hubris.
To reduce the unnecessarily onerous burden placed on nominees, the House should pass as the Senate has done—and President Obama should sign—the Presidential Appointment and Efficiency and Streamlining Act of 2011, which formally calls for a faster and less burdensome appointee background data gathering process. The current process, in which each appointee must fill out numerous, long, overlapping background data forms, should be replaced by a secure, computerized database, enabling nominees to supply all necessary information one way, one time, so vetting agencies and congressional committees can download what they need.
Fixing this problem is no small feat. One cannot understate the power inertia has over the appointments process, and for that matter, over Washington as a whole. Indeed, over the last 50 years, the appointments process has withstood nearly constant calls for reform—from the press, good government groups and nine other special commissions. To be fair, some good has come from the pressure; for instance, Congress passed beneficial legislation in 2000, 2004, and 2010 that encourages earlier transition planning and expedites consideration of nominees for national security positions. Overall, though, reform has been slow, piecemeal, and diminutive, leaving the bulk of the problem to persist unaddressed.
The 20-member, bipartisan Aspen Institute- Rockefeller Foundation Commission to Reform the Federal Appointments Process, of which we serve as co-chairs with Senators Bill Frist and Chuck Robb, has accepted this challenge head on. Together with similarly interested parties, such as the US Chamber of Commerce, the US Conference of Mayors, and the Partnership for Public Service, we are actively working with representatives of the Senate, White House, and relevant government agencies on paths to reform—specifically those just outlined above.
Presently, we see the passage of the Presidential Appointment and Efficiency and Streamlining Act of 2011 by the House of Representatives as an important step in the right direction. The Act will exempt from Senate confirmation around 200 non-policymaking, non-senior presidentially appointed positions (management officers, public affairs officials and members of various advisory commissions and boards), in a move that will start to unclog the appointments pipeline. Also provided by the law is an important authorization to develop the improved background gathering system mentioned previously—a path towards a streamlined system that will meet the needs of our government in the 21st century.
Additionally, the Commission is mindful of the upcoming election and its resulting possibility of yet another transition in the near future. In light of this, we are working to obtain commitments from the viable candidates to commit the necessary personnel and resources in their campaigns to plan for a possible transition. We will help ensure viable candidates obtain current, accurate job descriptions for each presidentially appointed position, including statutory and management responsibilities, which can potentially be shared with a new president-elect, should that be the result of November's election.
Finally, it should be noted that these reforms will significantly help, rather than hinder, the White House and executive branch to select the best candidates for office. Similarly, reform will better assist the Senate in exercising its power to advise and consent on those appointments. These efforts are not politically motivated—this is not aimed at President Obama nor any other president or administration. Rather, the goals we seek will benefit future administrations of both parties.
The ability to govern the United States of America effectively should not diminish during presidential transitions. The American people elect a president to govern—they deserve to have a president who can govern for the full four-year term, and they deserve to have a better functioning government. Changes must be made if we are to avoid further degradation in the quality of government, or worse, a true crisis. The failure of the appointments process has persisted for too long. The case for reform is clear and the time for change is now.