No. 1 qualification for political appointees: patience

The nomination process is more drawn-out than ever, and analysts worry about the impact on government.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Here's something that could keep a new president Al Gore or George W. Bush awake at night:

At the tedious rate at which the political appointment process now turns in Washington, the next president will be fortunate to have his Cabinet and sub-Cabinet in place by November 2001 - nine months after he takes office.

The situation has become so bad that analysts on both ends of the political spectrum now agree the nomination and confirmation process is verging on collapse.

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Beyond concerns over inefficiency, many are worried that if the current system is not improved, these delays could shrink the future talent pool of those willing to serve. Nominees are often left exhausted and embarrassed by the end of the process - which could deter others and negatively affect the quality of government itself.

Two Washington think tanks, the liberal Brookings Institution and the conservative Heritage Foundation, recently released a survey of 435 senior-level appointees, spanning the Clinton, Bush, and Reagan administrations. They found that, from start to finish, the nomination process is more drawn-out than ever.

Escalating delays

Under President Reagan, only 11 percent of appointees had to wait longer than six months between the moment they were contacted by the White House to their confirmation by the Senate. Under Bush, that jumped to 25 percent. Under Clinton, 44 percent of nominees were kept waiting for more than half a year.

"Twenty years ago, it was unusual if the process took more than a month," says Virginia Thomas, the study's co-author from the Heritage Foundation.

The most recent spike can be attributed in part to what the study calls "the Clinton effect." Out of power for 12 years, the Democratic White House was inexperienced in handling its first wave of nominees. And the last wave entered the chute during a period of intense scandal, including an impeachment trial and campaign-finance investigation.

But "Bill Clinton leaving office is not going to automatically improve the process," says Paul Light, the co-author from Brookings. The next president may have better relations with the Senate, but nominees will still face complicated financial-disclosure forms, lengthy FBI field investigations, and a Senate review.

Appointees fault both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue for the delays - though they put more blame on the Senate, which can place indefinite "holds" on nominations.

"The major holdup is often that a member of the Senate or members of the Senate oppose the nomination, but it's very difficult to determine who is opposing the nomination and for what reason," said one Clinton administration official.

But another Clinton official pointed to the ineptitude of the White House: "The most important thing would be for the incoming president to hire competent people for the White House personnel office."

Steps toward change

A bipartisan advisory board is supposed to recommend early next year how to improve the process.

In the meantime, several smaller steps are under way. One, a bipartisan group called the Council for Excellence in Government is assembling a "survivor's guide" for nominees, explaining the various forms and steps in the process.

A software program is also being developed that puts questions to a candidate and then shoots the answers to the appropriate forms - sort of like an H&R Block for nominees.

The advisory board is working on some recommendations that Clinton could carry out by executive order, such as adding a few people to the White House personnel office and establishing a central routing office in Congress.

Bigger reforms

But the bigger reforms, which Mr. Light says could streamline the process to as few as three months, would involve much more political effort, as well as legislation.

For the White House, it might mean fewer appointees (currently, it has roughly 6,000 appointee positions, about 1,500 of which need Senate approval in the first year).

For the Senate, it might mean restricting the "holds" practice, says Light. With the process now near the breaking point, "both ends have to give up something."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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