Advise and Consent (Also Obstruct, Delay, and Stymie)

Politics and policy.
March 20 1999 3:30 AM

Advise and Consent (Also Obstruct, Delay, and Stymie)

What's still wrong with the appointments process.

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You can make a case that the appointments mess is more aesthetic than substantive. The Senate, after all, is apparently nearing a compromise on the sentencing commission, and the president will likely nominate seven new commissioners in the next few weeks. Holbrooke's U.N. nomination may be iced by Helms for a bit longer, but everyone agrees that he will be confirmed. The administration will find a China envoy. Lee has already been serving as acting assistant attorney general for 14 months. If the Senate refuses to hold a confirmation hearing, he will continue in that acting job till the end of Clinton's presidency. These are the exceptions: Most nominees are confirmed smoothly. And whether or not all the right jobs are filled with exactly the right people, the United States still manages to negotiate with China and the United Nations, the civil rights division still manages to file cases, and judges still manage to impose sentences.

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But the rising obstructionism does damage government. Presidents, who are elected to remake executive policy, find themselves hamstrung. Career civil servants act in place of unconfirmed presidential appointees. The career folks are unwilling and unable to impose the policy changes the president may want. The president often skirts the law by appointing "acting" officials who "act" for years (such as Lee), depriving the Senate of its constitutional right to approve appointments. The eternal shortage of judges means that some cases are adjudicated peremptorily. The president--and this has been especially true of Clinton--frequently nominates the least offensive nominee rather than the most qualified in order to pacify the Senate. The endless obstacles to confirmation deter the best candidates: According to Mackenzie, the presidential personnel office must frequently offer a job to its fourth or fifth choice because the top candidates don't want to endure the inconvenience.

The goo-goos would cut the number of presidential appointments by a third or more, lessening the burden on the Senate and allowing the president to pick better candidates. They would eliminate senatorial holds. They would simplify background investigations and financial disclosures. These are promising and admirable ideas--modest solutions to a modest problem. Appointment and confirmation is a political process, and like any political process it will always be messy. But it doesn't have to be this messy.

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