More Than a Year After Taking Office, Clinton Finally Steps Up Appointments

ATTACKED by critics for its sluggish approach toward political appointments, the White House is finally picking up the pace.

In fact, new deputy director of presidential personnel Craig Smith seems to be working at breakneck speed. He reports a typical day last week, when he conducted nine hours of 25-minute interviews, with five-minute breaks in between. That day's work, devoted to filling one job slot, produced no outstanding candidates. He says he was left to his own instincts and political sensibilities for the selection.

Mr. Smith arrived after a succession of Clinton aides put in appearances at the personnel office. But their duties were split between recruiting people to serve in the administration and other tasks.

That lack of focus, coupled with a laborious confirmation process once candidates are picked, has left the administration with at least 120 empty high-level posts. Well over a year after President Clinton was inaugurated, major divisions within Justice, Energy, and other departments are missing key decisionmakers, several regulatory agencies have incomplete boards, and important United States allies feel slighted because Washington has failed to send top envoys to their capitals.

Presidential scholar James Pffifner, who made recommendations on the quality of personnel and management in government in the 1989 Volcker Commission report, says Mr. Clinton has been slow ``largely because he and Hillary took such an active role [in rewarding loyal supporters] and took so seriously [cultural and racial] diversity'' for appointments.

Others, including leading Clinton advisers such as budget director Leon Panetta, fault the web of strict ethics guidelines. In an effort to ``halt the revolving door from public service to private enrichment,'' Clinton instituted rules that are disincentives to the first and second tier of potential choices for various posts.

Too much to ask

To many candidates, the probe into their past, the financial disclosure, and the promise not to conduct private affairs related to their government jobs for five years after service is just too much to ask.

Smith, who earned a reputation as a methodical strategist when he was the director of Clinton's state-by-state 1992 presidential campaign, says he is finding high-quality people.

He joined the White House personnel office in early March, he says, because ``they needed someone who had institutional knowledge of how Bill Clinton got elected. And, because I have done this before.''

When Clinton was governor of Arkansas, Smith served as his secretary for appointments to boards and commissions for five years. ``We filled 10,000 jobs,'' he recalls. ``By the end, we figured we had appointed 1 percent of the state's eligible voters,'' he adds, laughing.

Although he now faces great pressure to complete the current process, Smith says he doesn't want to ``screw it up,'' and that he will make sure Clinton is getting ``the right person and that [he's] getting the right politics.''

But the right politics often means the wrong person for the job, says Mr. Pfiffner, a professor of government and politics at Virginia's George Mason University. The patronage system cuts off the careers of civil servants who are often much more suited to the appointment, he says.

And no matter how quickly Smith's office screens candidates and offers up nominees, there is a long time lag after his work is finished.

A nominee will go through at least two months of scrutiny at the White House counsel's office, two months of checks by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and two months of Senate appraisal. While some of this can be simultaneous, the average amount of time is roughly eight-and-a-half months. Any nominee who is wealthy, politically involved, or has worked abroad will likely spur enough questions to stretch out the process even further, says Calvin Mackenzie, chairman of the government department at Colby College, who has written extensively on the politics of presidential appointments.

The delays have been costly to the public as well as to the administration itself. Interest groups, for example, have no recourse if the office with which they must directly deal has not been filled. Many career professionals find their efforts are spread thin as they cope with small staffs due to unfilled positions.

Professor Mackenzie says the appointment ``lethargy'' has hurt Clinton. During last year's budget fight, Mackenzie observes, Clinton ``did not have his troops in line. They were not key people [from government departments and agencies] defending their budgets, so Congress was either hearing from a holdover of the Bush administration or from senior civil service officers who did not have authority.''

Defenseless in Defense

Mackenzie points to another time last year, ``when Clinton was trying to get gays into the military, he had no allies within the defense establishment.''

Of the 49 political appointments he could make at the Defense Department, only one was filled by then-Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, who was out ill during a crucial time for Clinton's policy battle. ``The rest of the staff was a holdover from a department that was controlled by Republicans for the past 12 years,'' he says.

The White House's recent withdrawal of former Democratic Rep. Stephen Solarz's nomination for ambassador to India is a window into just how damaging the difficult and delayed confirmation process has become. ``The simple threat that [the Senate confirmation hearing] would be controversial torpedoed the nomination in a Senate controlled by the president's party,'' Mackenzie says. ``We've reached a point when everybody is so skittish.'' Mackenzie says the process is taking a toll on the quality of government personnel. ``What does that say to people of talent and humanity? They're going to be very reluctant when the president calls,'' he says.

The president will be calling. One third of all political appointees stay in their jobs an average of 18 months, so there is plenty of turnover.

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