Thursday, April 8, 2010

Against Careful Vetting (Robert Harding edition)

Do you know who Robert Harding is?

Ten points if you remember Obama's second failed TSA nominee.  But, you know, you're someone who reads political blogs -- you're not a typical voter.  Out there among normal Americans, I doubt that one in a thousand would know who Robert Harding is.

That makes Harding a great symbol of what's wrong with the nomination process.  Not because he was a poor selection, but because he demonstrates the very minimal damage caused by making a poor selection. Unfortunately, these sorts of things tend to yield even worse reforms, so this is my attempt to put a little weight on the other side of the scale.

Here's the deal.  Presidents vet nominees for executive positions very, very, carefully.  As a result: (1) it takes forever to nominate anyone, and (2) lots of people are unwilling to serve.  Of course, this is only made worse by Senate procedures, but that's mostly beyond presidential control, and here I'm focusing only on what the president can do.  So, reducing the vetting procedure to something a lot less burdensome would result in a larger pool (and therefore better nominees) and quicker selections.  And that would result in better governing.  It would also result in a stronger presidency; presidential appointees help the president control what the bureaucracy is doing, and without them -- with lots of slots vacant -- presumably it's even harder for presidents to get bureaucrats to follow administration policy. 

As I said, unfortunately, the likely reaction of both the press and (then) of politicians when a nominee fails like this is to demand tougher vetting.  Who messed up?  Why didn't someone notice the obvious problems?  Why is the White House so sloppy? What are they going to do to make sure it doesn't happen again?

Barack Obama would be wise to ignore such questions, and definitely ignore anticipating those questions.  At best, this sort of thing is a one-day story.  Let's see...Harding withdrew on March 26.  A Google blog search for April 1-7 ("Harding" and "TSA") yields a grand total of about a dozen items, not all of which appear to be focused on the nomination, and few indeed from prominent bloggers.  In other words, five days later, the story was dead.  Harm done to the administration from its less-than-ideal vetting?  Somewhere between none and none.

Granted, if the White House took my advice and reduced vetting considerably -- I'd suggest following a corporate model (plus national security clearances where absolutely necessary) -- there would be more of these botched nominations, and, no doubt about it, an occasional bad apple would get through and embarrass the president by stealing, or taking lobbyists to LA high-concept strip clubs, or whatever.  There would be a real cost to less careful vetting.  However, there's also a real cost to the current practice, and it's hard for me to believe that presidents are coming out ahead.  And that's, really, what Harding shows; failed nominations just aren't a very big deal, while failure to fully staff the federal government -- and losing lots of potentially great appointees who aren't willing to submit to a brutal process -- is far more costly.

My proposal for a executive branch nominations commission can be found here.


  1. Mostly agreed, with one proviso: the big public failures are big public failures. Think Daschle. That one stung, and the sting lasted for quite a while. So, don't bother with vetting the undersecretaries as much, but vet those cabinet-level appointees well. After all, nobody really pays attention to the much media coverage did Wolfie get? Or Bolton before the UN nomination?

  2. I agree. I'm curious about whether a corporate model would take care of that, too. I really don't know how much vetting major corporations do when hiring CEOs (insert various jokes here)...I think the kind of vetting major corps (or, for academics, a university choosing a president) should do is similar to what presidents should do for cabinet-level appointments (which is probably less than they do now), but I have no idea of whether major corps actually do much of that.


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