Complex Game of Moving Cabinet Chessboard Pieces

Here's what the classified ad might look like: "Wanted - Managers to head divisions of large national organization. The successful candidate will be loyal, efficient, and willing to see all aspects of their personal life discussed on network TV. Budgets subject to the whim of 535-person board of directors. Salary is lower than equal jobs in private sector. Benefits include good seats at lighting of White House Christmas tree."

It isn't easy to find good Cabinet secretaries these days. President Clinton hasn't resorted to help wanted ads, yet. But at some point in the search for talented people both Mr. Clinton and his predecessors have surely muttered to themselves that there must be a better way to fill high-level administration jobs.

Not that there's a shortage of applicants. Washington's rumor mill is today grinding out lists of potential Cabinet secretaries, from Chicago lawyer Bill Daley as the secretary of Transportation to Madeleine Albright as secretary of State.

But getting the people the president wants - and getting them confirmed by the Senate - can be a daunting challenge.

"These are some of the toughest, most challenging jobs in America," notes Council For Excellence in Government head Patricia McGinnis.

The quadrennial Cabinet shuffle is, of course, one of Washington's favorite spectator sports. This year unique circumstances appear to have made speculation even more intense than usual.

First, Clinton's reelection was immediately followed by a stampede for the Cabinet exits. The president appeared ready to quickly name replacements for a few key posts, such as State. But he didn't - and then he left for a long Asian tour. All this combined to kick what old Washington hands call "The Great Mentioner" into overdrive.

Consider the Pentagon. A few days ago, retiring Sen. Bill Cohen (R) of Maine was a sure thing as secretary of Defense. He was moderate, he was Republican, he was willing to take the job.

Then he was down. Some kind of hold up. Now CIA director John Deutch's name is on the rise. Or maybe Colin Powell - the Great Mentioner's favorite person, a man who's been floated for everything from postmaster general to secretary-general of the UN.

Other Mentioner tips include EPA chief Carol Browner for the Energy Department, or possibly Interior. Ex-Sen. George Mitchell of Maine remains a strong contender for State. New Mexico Rep. Bill Richardson (D) is a contender for secretary of Commerce.

But the questions remains: Why would someone who's qualified to sit around the Cabinet table accept the job? For one thing, the confirmation process is brutal. The Senate and the media will poke into every detail of your past activities - and you run the chance of a humiliating rejection on the national stage, similar to what befell past attorney general candidate Zoe Baird.

Today, the confirmation process has become a "chamber of horrors" that is "undermining the very trust in government it is supposed to foster," concludes a new Twentieth Century Fund report on the presidential appointment process.

Nowadays it takes far too long to assemble a top-level administration team, notes the study. In John F. Kennedy's day, nominees waited a little over two months for Senate approval. Now, with FBI investigations required and all manner of financial forms to fill out, the typical nominee waits over 8-1/2 months for Senate consideration.

Participants in the Twentieth Century Fund report also generally agreed that the process is now too harsh. Nominees must undergo intense personal questioning about everything from past drug use to their employment of nannies, whether it is relevant to their job performance or not.

A maze of forms and legal requirements has also made the process too complicated, claims the report. "Recruitment of an administration is thus only slightly structured chaos," judges G. Calvin Mackenzie, Colby College presidential scholar and chairman of the study.

Among the study's solutions: a proposed "zone of privacy" for top job nominees, simplification of conflict of interest laws and financial disclosure procedures, and a curb on the ability of individual senators to place "holds" on nominations for their own political purposes.

The report also suggested eliminating Senate confirmation entirely for routine appointments and the promotion of military officers.

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