Thursday, July 15, 2010

When Commissions Can Work

Short answer: when everyone agrees on something, but needs political cover to do it.

In my earlier post today, I referred to my suggestion that Barack Obama appoint a commission on executive branch appointments to streamline the current process.  Commenter David Nieporent (an old friend from days), isn't impressed:
Really? Your solution to government inability to get things done is... a commission? Isn't that almost too ridiculous to parody? 
Good question!

Here's the deal: as far as I know, there's a general consensus among everyone that the executive branch appointment process is broken.  Appointees are forced to fill out far too much paperwork and disclose too much, and the whole ordeal is both massively unpleasant and ridiculously time-consuming.  That's true at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, by the way.  The cause?  Well, it sounds real good in a presidential campaign to accuse the in-party of cronyism and corruption, and to propose rulebound remedies that lead the candidate, once he's president, to increase the amount of paperwork and disclosure.  Of course, most real corruption problems have nothing to do with the sorts of things that would be caught in that kind of procedure.  It's highly unlikely, it seems to me, that the sort of gotcha tax stuff that's tripped up various potential appointees is really going to be correlated with a propensity to take large cartoon-style bags of cash (clearly labeled with $ signs) in exchange for regulatory favors.  Moreover, a good deal of what gets called corruption isn't, at least in my view, corruption at all.  Bush-era and Reagan-era appointees were in many cases kind to corporate interests because that's what those presidents wanted.  The cure for that, if you prefer, say, tougher enforcement of regulations on offshore drilling, is to avoid electing presidents who chant "Drill, baby, drill." 

The point is that no one actually intended the current system.  And everyone agrees that the current system imposes all sorts of costs, from keeping good people out of government to keeping important positions vacant for months. 

I also think there probably is some actual uncertainty about exactly what sorts of questions should be asked of incoming presidential nominees.  So a working commission actually would have some real questions to answer.  Mostly, though, a commission would just be a means for a president (and, with any luck, Congress) to relax the requirements without facing partisan claims of corruption.  Hey, it can even claim to be cracking down on past malfeasance that was facilitated by an overly burdensome confirmation process (which is no doubt true: presumably, a fair number of honest and law-abiding citizens will have nothing to do with government service because of the burdens imposed on them.  And given that whenever such a commission reports would have its first major effects when the next president was inaugurated, it has a built-in reason for all future presidential candidates to support it.  Which should take care of any supermajority requirements in the Senate, right there.

(It's a joke...commission recommendations wouldn't actually need to be enacted through legislation).

More generally...commissions can be useful for fact-finding when there are actual facts to be found; they can also be useful, as I said above, to provide political cover for something everyone wants to do but no one wants credit for.  That, of course, is why the current deficit reduction commission is unlikely to work -- there is no agreement between the parties that deficits should be reduced.  If I'm wrong -- if there are important players who really do want the current system -- then a commission is unlikely to do any good.


  1. I would think that the buy-in is the problem.

    Under Obama, the GOP is delaying and stalling because its no skin off their back, and they might find something to win a few news cycles with, and, as one commenter in the last thread noted, it dovetails with their no government = good government philosophy.

    What would it look like under Pawlenty? (I would do Palin, but then we really have to be concerned about true incomptence in nominees also entering the picture) I gotta figure that the Dems would also look to win news cycles, so they'd still delay hoping to find dirt. I also have to figure that the interest groups on the left would insist that nominees x, y, and z be opposed because they once said something that vaguely hinted at abortion/unions/minorities/take-your-pick in an unflattering light. The only pushback is that Dems actually think that having somebody competent but biased in the job is better than having nobody in it. Probably enough to get a number of assistant deputy under sub vice secretaries (acting) appointed. But the judges (a truly awful situation): not really. Heck, I figure Dems might actually let a Pawlenty staff the "Republican" departments like Commerce, Treasury and Defense. But get into the ones where the nominees could do any kind of damage to the groups on the left? I don't see it.

    So, I think that the nomination commission would make recommendations, but for a lot of positions, I'm not sure there'd be that agreement between the parties beforehand. And, try convincing Senators to stop blackmailing 1600 Penn Ave to get unrelated (or even related!) concessions. The parties might agree, but that doesn't yield FAA approval of drones on the border (to take Cornyn's supposed reason for holding up the FAA guy).

  2. I was half-joking. But actually, even after reading your posts on the subject, I'm not sure what problem a commission is supposed to resolve. A commission can provide bipartisan cover for something unpopular (such as tax hikes or social security reform); it can also make comprehensive decisions that would get Congress bogged down in pork-filled horsetrading (e.g. the BRAC) or just ideological infighting (the Sentencing Commission).

    But the process of nominating people? What would a commission do about that? Recommend that people not be forced to fill out so much paperwork or disclose so much? That doesn't make sense; you don't need political cover for meta-decisions like those. You need political cover for when you nominate someone with a skeleton in his closet -- but a commission making recommendations about the nomination process won't provide such cover. (Now, if the commission were actually nominating people, it might provide cover -- but the president isn't going to turn that perk over to a commission.)

  3. David,

    Yeah, I know what you sound like when you're really dismissive of an idea...

    I think you underestimate the problem. If a president-elect Pawlenty just unilaterally decided not to worry about conflicts of interest, or whether a nominee had ever been a lobbyist (oooh, scary), Democrats would go to town on it, and the press would eat it up -- they love stuff like that. OTOH, if the commission reports back with guidelines, and Obama implements them without Common Cause complaining, then if Pawlenty follows the same procedures I think he'd be pretty safe. And then, over time, things would get worse again, but from a much better starting point.


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