The other March madness – presidential appointments

March was disastrous for presidential appointments. The White House and Senate began the month unable to process more than a handful of nominees at a time, and ended at a melting point over the nomination of two top candidates for the Transportation Department.

Each day brought new proof that the process is near collapse. On March 1, the Bush administration surpassed Clinton's as the slowest in history to fill its high-level jobs.

Ironically, the Bush administration also set a record in March by making more nominations in its first 13 months than any administration in history. But it has had more positions to fill. Bush will appoint 150 more Senate-confirmed officials than Reagan, and 100 more than his father. With more than a fifth of its 515 Senate-confirmed posts still vacant, Bush will be lucky to have his cabinet and subcabinet in place by Halloween.

March also brought the long-awaited nominations of the surgeon general and director of the National Institutes of Health. Unfortunately, the new surgeon general was identified long after the administration knew his predecessor was leaving, while the NIH post was open on Inauguration Day.

Even as the administration celebrated its choices for these top health jobs, the Treasury Department announced the departure of the assistant secretary for tax policy, while the Energy Department announced the exit of its deputy secretary. This administration is still arriving as it is beginning to leave.

Alongside the lamblike pace of filling top jobs was a lionlike dispute over the Transportation Department nominees. Angered by the Senate's opposition to his $1.8 billion railroad rescue bill, Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware informed his colleagues on March 13 that he had placed a secret hold on the two administration nominees.

Senator Biden didn't dispute the need to fill the posts. Both are listed by the Brookings Institution's Presidential Appointee Initiative as central to the war on terrorism. Nor did he dispute the quality of the candidates.

Biden still placed the first holds of his distinguished 29-year career, however. Admitting that "my frustration is reaching the boiling point," Biden joined a long list of senators who have used the appointments process to extract concessions from their colleagues and the White House. As Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina discovered when he placed holds on four Treasury Department nominees almost a year ago, the more important and qualified the nominees, the more potent the hold.

The Transportation Department responded to Biden by apparently withholding a $90,000 grant payment to a University of Delaware transportation researcher who might actually have a workable idea for speeding rail service. When a Biden aide called the Transportation Department to ask about the lost payment, an official reportedly suggested that Biden knew where the payment was. Washington now knows the cost of a hold.

The White House finished the disastrous month by making five recess appointments just in time for Easter. These included Biden's two hostages from Transportation, and the administration's controversial nominees for the Federal Election Commission and the civil rights post at the Education Department.

Throughout the month, the nonrecessed appointees slogged through the process. Initially, they face 60 pages of forms, a lengthy review by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Office of Government Ethics, and an unpredictable Senate. They are "innocent until nominated," a White House aide once described it.

Sens. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut and Fred Thompson (R) of Tennessee have introduced legislation that would accelerate the appointments process. But until that passes, the easiest way to fix this mess is to abolish any Senate-confirmed positions not filled by July 4. Surely, these posts cannot matter much. That might be some solace for the "March madness" the nation continues to endure.

• Paul C. Light is vice president and director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution.

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