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Jewish World Review April 24, 2001 / 2 Iyar 5761

Morton Kondracke

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Congress must fix slow presidential appointee system -- YOU can blame it on Linda Chavez, the Florida recount or the FBI, but the fact is, nearly three months after President Bush's inauguration, hardly anyone is at work in his sub-Cabinet.

At the Pentagon, for instance, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is in place along with his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz. Eight other top officials have been named, but none has been confirmed by the Senate, so they can't really function. And 37 other posts remain unfilled.

Rumsfeld, aides say, is frustrated. The same can be said of Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, who is home alone at the top of his department. Six of his top aides have been selected, but only three have been officially nominated and none has been confirmed.

In fact, at nine out of 14 Cabinet departments, only the secretary is in place. The exceptions, besides Defense, are the departments of State, Labor, Treasury and Veterans' Affairs.

As of last Friday, according to the Brookings Institution's Presidential Appointee Initiative, of the 487 Senate-confirmable posts Bush has to fill, only 29 have been filled by confirmation, 31 more have had people nominated and 94 have had people named but not officially nominated.

Actually, according to Brookings scholar Paul Light, director of PAI, Bush personnel chief Clay Johnson claims that 300 of the 487 have been selected by the President but haven't been announced yet.

If that's true, Light said, this would be "a modern record for presidential signoff." Still, it seems to take forever for a new president to fill his government (nine months on average),and the time is getting longer.

After 84 days in office, which Bush reached last Friday, President Ronald Reagan had nominated 112 officials and 72 had been confirmed in 1981. By that same period in 1993, President Bill Clinton had nominated 70 officials and 42 had been confirmed. Light doesn't have figures for Bush's father.

However, the 37-day Florida recount slowed down George W. Bush's transition process. Comparing his record 124 days after becoming president-elect, Bush's 60 nominations and 29 confirmations nearly tie Reagan's 58 nominations and 38 confirmations, and outstrips Clinton's 35 nominations and 26 confirmations.

Clinton was notorious for his inability to make decisions and for the inefficiency of his first-term White House. Most scholars rate Reagan's as the best recent transition. So Bush is not doing badly by comparison.

What's more, Light noted, he's been handicapped by the FBI's "tightening up" after being "embarrassed" by the media's (not its) discovery that Bush's original choice for Labor secretary, Linda Chavez, had employed an illegal immigrant.

The fundamental fact is that the entire presidential appointment and nomination system is clogged by bureaucratic bottlenecks, duplicative and intrusive forms and, ultimately, Senate delays in processing nominations.

Nominees are required to fill out four sets of forms - a White House personal data questionnaire, the excruciating standard form 86 used for FBI security clearances, the Office of Government Ethics financial disclosure report and a separate form required by Senate committees.

Regardless of whether appointees will have access to national security information, form 86 requires them to list all the jobs they've held and places they've lived over the past 15 years, provide the name, address and phone number of an acquaintance from every educational institution they've attended since high school, and even the whereabouts of ex-spouses.

In the computer age, form 86 must be filled out by hand or typewriter. Then it takes the FBI an average of 40 days to complete full field investigations on nominees, Light said. Senate committees receive raw reports from the FBI, but then demand their own forms, whose questions vary only slightly from the FBI's.

According to Light, having been cleared for government service in the past actually lengthens the delay because the FBI and Senate staffers spend hours comparing forms in search of discrepancies.

"The perfect nominee is someone with no life, no interests, no history," Light explained, "maybe an orphan who never married and never worked - an assetless cipher."

This tedious system has been the subject of at least nine major reform studies since 1985. Yet the length of time required to process nominees has grown with each new administration.

Brookings' latest study, headed by former Sen. Nancy Kassebaum Baker (R-Kan.) and former White House budget director Franklin Raines, recommends simplifying forms, limiting FBI investigations to security needs, reducing the number of appointments a president makes, reviewing the multiple sets of ethics rules governing appointees and shortening the Senate confirmation process.

At a hearing earlier this month, Senate Governmental Affairs Chairman Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) promised that, this time, the system will be reformed. We'll see.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments by clicking here.


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