Monday, May 17, 2010

Against Careful Vetting (Pistole edition)

Well, it seems that Barack Obama has finally bestirred himself to appoint a TSA director.  Granted, he's been trying, on and off.  Career FBI guy John S. Pistole is his third nominee, and perhaps his first successful one, if initial reaction on the Hill is any indication.

As anyone could tell you, Obama's reputation was destroyed popularity was damaged administration was not harmed by the first two failed nominees, outside of the damage of not actually having someone in place at the agency.  Indeed, the second nomination seemed particularly weak, with the nominee (Robert Harding) scuttled rapidly over his previous business activities.  But his nomination and demise didn't seem to hurt Obama at all, as far as I can tell. 

That's why the quickest and most effective reform to the problem of unfilled executive branch posts would be for presidents to dramatically reduce the amount of vetting they do on these appointments.  Harding withdrew on March 26; there's really no reason at that point that the new nominee could not have been sent up within two, not seven plus, weeks.  After all, presumably a short list already existed from the previous search.  My guess -- and I'd love to see reporting on this -- is that six of the seven weeks were just for vetting.  And my guess is that a similarly placed executive hire in private business has no more than a two week delay for that sort of thing. 

Yes,  less vetting will yield more Hardings, or even (presumably, I guess) worse.  Again: so what?  A handful of similar cases isn't going to make much difference to anyone. On the other hand, it will allow some people who currently are unwilling to put their lives on hold to consider public service.  Granted, it's not the only reform that would do that; the next step would be more rapid Senate confirmation or rejection.  Still, changing Congressional procedure is hard.  Changing White House procedure should be easier -- and I've proposed a commission to clear the way. 

(BTW, I really did want to put an "Ancient Pistol" pun in the title of this one, but decided against it.  You're welcome).


  1. The political cost of vetting hiccups are only when an Admin has to take a live-or-die stand on a nominee who is either one of the top positions or who is "ideologically" controversial. Nominees for the lower rungs of the bureaucracy who have a CV appropriate for the job aren't likely to cause much of a problem if vetting didn't catch a problem that shows up later in the Senate. Even a nominee gets appointed and is later found to have a problem, that's not likely to produce much reverberation unless it (fortuitously for the opposition) comes out in a fashion that matches another negative story-line for the Admin that attracts press attention.

    I think one of the barriers to expediting the vetting on the Admin's end is that the Senate committee staffs (not just the minority, though they're the worst offenders) have gotten into their own elaborate vetting process that takes months before the person is likely to reach committee hearings. So any Admin wants to do its homework, anticipate any nasty surprises, and make sure they're not sending up someone whose background is going snarl up the Senate committee staff review. So unlessl we get new groundrules for how many nominees require Senate approval, the incentives all around produce more and more delay.

  2. Ekatya04,

    I agree with both of your points. But I do think that if the administration goes first, by cutting back, it'll have a better case to make against the Senate. Yes, the out-party is always going to have an incentive to dig stuff up, but at least if the majority (during unified Senate/Pres) and the WH minimize their own delays, then we're just dealing with out-party delays. At that point, then I think you need filibuster/hold reform. I guess my point is that filibuster/hold reform is hard to do, and even Senate committee reform is moderately hard to do -- but WH reform would be pretty easy, with little downside, and saving a few weeks here and a few weeks there would, in fact, help.

  3. The problem, unsurprisingly, is the Senate. The Senate took an average of 60.8 days to confirm Obama appointees in his first year, a 24% increase over the time in Clinton's first year, and those were with Democratic-controlled Senates. Since then, it has only gotten worse. When Obama made his recess appointments in late March, his nominees had been pending in the Senate an average of 101 days -- 34 for more than 6 months. The White House asks for tax forms only because certain committees have ex-IRS lawyers audit them using a standard that is more agressive than that applied by the actual IRS, and again this is the Democratic staff. Finally, Senate committees ask for completed FBI background checks, which take up to six weeks themselves. The White House part of the vet almost never takes longer than that Senate-required FBI portion. If you want to fix the delays and ridiculousness, you can do it committee by committee. Start with Baucus, who is currently raking a critical national security nominee over the coals for paying correct taxes but omitting the accompanying form for a part-time housekeeper 17 years ago!


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