Is government hurt by foot-dragging on appointees?

There are more vacancies in the Clinton administration than at Disney World during a hurricane.

That's the way political observer Paul Light describes what's happened now that the process for confirming political appointees is "completely broken."

It doesn't matter whether it's ambassadorships, Cabinet positions, or federal judgeships: Presidential appointments are moving at a historically slow pace.

The ramifications are much bigger than simply gummed-up political machinery. Because the nomination process takes more time and scrutiny, the pool of people willing to serve is shrinking. Analysts say the ultimate consequence is less-efficient government led by people who sometimes are the president's 12th or 13th choice.

The quality of appointees "has to be lower than you'd wish. We're not getting access to the very best people in our society," says Calvin Mackenzie, a professor at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, and author of a 1997 study that found the appointment process to be "a festering national embarrassment."

For much of President Clinton's term, for instance, the average time to confirm political appointees has been more than 8-1/2 months, with the vacancy rate often exceeding 25 percent. It took five months in President Reagan's time and less than three in the Kennedy administration, according to Mr. Mackenzie.

Judgeships now take an average of 260 days for confirmation, up from 183 days in 1996 and only 86 days in 1994. Ambassadorship approval averages eight to 10 months.

"It keeps getting slower and slower all the time," says Mackenzie.

A host of reasons accounts for the delays, including traditional ones such as lame-duck administrations that are unattractive to potential appointees, and opposing parties in Congress and the White House. In both this administration and the Reagan administration, opposition-controlled Senates have held up judicial appointees, hoping the next election would bring a more ideologically friendly president.

So far, with 71 vacancies left to fill, Mr. Clinton has appointed 306 federal judges, compared with Mr. Reagan's 385. The appointments have replaced most of the Carter-era judges, but now are starting to affect Reagan judges.

In his 1997 annual report, US Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist sternly warned against the high number of judicial vacancies, though the Senate cut the vacancies in half in the last Congress, says Jeanne Lopatto, Senate Judiciary Committee spokeswoman.

Still, this year's batch of nominees - 42 so far - "is not something we're going to do by rubber stamp," Ms. Lopatto says.

The nation got a peek at the fierce politics at play when Sen. James Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma recently threatened to hold up "every single presidential nomination." The senator was furious that Clinton had taken advantage of a congressional recess to appoint gay philanthropist James Hormel as ambassador to Luxemburg - an appointee the president has sought since 1997.

Despite the threat, two key nominees - Larry Summers, Treasury secretary in waiting, and Richard Holbrooke, who has been waiting for a year for the UN ambassadorship - will appear before senators for hearings this week. It's still possible, however, for one individual to hold up the confirmation.

But it's more than partisan politics or the lame-duck syndrome that accounts for the slow down. Today, there are more political-appointment positions than ever, and appointees are serving for shorter amounts of time.

Electronic databases make it possible to delve deeper into the records of individuals. Plus, the Clinton personnel office, scorched by nominee scandal early on, has a vigorous, time-consuming vetting process.

In 1996, a bipartisan task force recommended several changes, including reducing the number of appointed positions, shielding confirmation debates from delay tactics, and streamlining financial disclosure forms for appointees.

But Congress is not in the mood for reform these days, says Mr. Light at the Brookings Institution in Washington. That's why he and other political scientists are taking matters into their own hands - albeit on a small scale.

Light is hoping to create the "H&R Block" of the nomination process, a nonpartisan service that could simplify the paperwork and advise nominees on what to expect. This, he believes, would relieve at least some of the burdens facing nominees, and perhaps even jump-start lawmakers for reform.

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