Confirmation game: Nasty and brutish

Posted: Monday, August 31, 2009

With last week's reappointment of Ben S. Bernanke as chairman of the Federal Reserve, one of President Obama's biggest staffing headaches is all but over. Now on to the hundreds more that still require attention.

Seven months into his term, both a running Post count and a tally from the White House Transition Project, reported in The New York Times last week, show that fewer than half of the Obama administration's 500 or so senior positions are filled. Obama is waging war without an Army secretary. His attorney general's newly appointed special counsel will investigate the application of legal memos produced in the Bush-era Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) even as his own OLC is leaderless.

In many cases, Republicans have unjustly delayed confirmation. Kansas lawmakers put a hold on Rep. John M. McHugh, R-N.Y., Mr. Obama's nominee for Army secretary, because they don't want detainees from Guantanamo Bay moved to their state's Fort Leavenworth. And Dawn E. Johnsen, Mr. Obama's OLC pick, who has faced overblown charges of being too "ideological," has waited so long for confirmation that she signed up to teach a course at Indiana University in the coming school year.

Mr. Obama also hasn't nominated anyone yet for many of the open slots. The White House says that it's doing far better than the president's recent predecessors, citing a count that includes lower-ranking appointments. But the byzantine system is still unnecessarily time-consuming, requiring the completion of redundant questionnaires that read with the length and ease of a Pynchon novel, on everything from foreign travel, no matter how brief, to years of tax filings.

In the meantime, civil servants are filling in as interim managers. Some career officials might be excellent stand-ins; others won't be as comfortable pressing forward with policy development and execution as hand-picked appointees. The invasive process also discourages talented people from pursuing or accepting political appointments.

Lawmakers should be less quick to use confirmations as bargaining chips and should limit the use of holds. They should think about just how many positions really require Senate confirmation. And they might change the rules so that appointees are automatically confirmed after a reasonable time, unless a majority in the Senate votes not to confirm a nominee.

The White House should examine whether its vetting, stepped up after some high-profile withdrawals this year, is now too thorough. Both should get together to harmonize the vetting process, so that nominees have to fill out only one, standardized set of forms; that might even cut down on the absurd intensity of the background checks.

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