Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Fixing the Confirmation Process

You can still visit the old Senate chamber, where the US Senate met from 1819-1859

One of the very worst things about how Washington works is the Senate confirmation process.

Even many routine, insignificant, part time government appointees must receive Senate confirmation for jobs with a tenure that generally lasts less than two years.  In sum, about 1,200 appointees are subject to Senate confirmation.  Between the amount of paperwork and disclosure, committee hearings, floor action, and a potential "hold" for reasons that have nothing at all to do with the nomination itself, it can take nearly as long to be confirmed as the person will hold the post for which she was confirmed.

The situation has grown significantly worse in recent decades. While cabinet officers are still confirmed with relative promptness, confirmation for the all important subcabinet posts have slowed from 114 days during the Reagan administration to nearly 200 during the Obama administration.  

As a result, many sane persons decline such appointments, and the government is denied the services of some of the most talented people this country has to offer.  Instead, a cadre of job holders who have previously been Senate confirmed tend to shuffle in and out of posts over the years.

Despite all of this, the Senate has generally been uninterested in changing its ways on confirmations, preferring instead the leverage it can exercise over the executive branch to needed reforms to improve the workings of government.

On June 28th , though, the Senate finally passed legislation, S. 679, the Presidential Appointment Efficiency and Streamlining Act, that would significantly improve this situation.  First, the bill would eliminate the need to confirm 170 positions.  These are mostly non-policy roles, e.g. public affairs, internal management officials, etc (most prominent would be the US Treasurer, not to be confused with the Secretary of the Treasury).  Next, it would provide for expedited consideration for another 250 appointees for part time boards and commissions.

Of special interest is the irregular methods used by the Senate to accomplish this task.  A special committee of Senators was formed with members from both the Rules Committee (which has jurisdiction over internal Senate operations), the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs (which has jurisdiction over the confirmation process generally) and others with a "stake" in the system.  This ad hoc group drafted the legislation, which sailed through a chamber too often stifled in partisan gridlock by an impressive 79-20 vote.  Whether such tactics can work on other issues remains to be seen.

While the bill must, of course, still go to the House for approval before being sent to the President, it is expected to do so without much controversy as the House does not play a role in the confirmation process.  The Senate's willingness to pass a bill that would reduce its own leverage for the good of government overall is one very bright ray of bi-partisan sunshine in a city too often marked by competition for political power.

No comments: