Hoover Daily Report

Releasing the “Confirmation Hostages”

Monday, November 19, 2001

The attacks of September 11 exposed the federal government's need to enact critical reform, most notably in intelligence gathering, domestic security, and military preparedness.

Not to be overlooked is another improvement that is long overdue in Washington: revamping the current appointments process, which compromises the federal government's ability to respond to crises and to carry out core functions in times of both war and peace.

On the day of the attacks only 110 of 148 Senate-confirmed positions—related either directly or indirectly to America's war on terrorism—had been filled. That 74 percent rate is far better than the federal government as a whole, which had only 58 percent of its Senate-confirmed jobs filled as of September 11. Neither is an acceptable standard. The first figure reflects a mediocre "gentleman's C"; the second, a failure.

The political gamesmanship that taints the appointments process continues to worsen, even though the executive and legislative branches of government have changed partisan hands. By Ronald Reagan's seventh month in office, nearly 90 percent of his nominees had been confirmed; for Bill Clinton, the confirmation rate over the same period was 87 percent. But for George W. Bush, that rate has fallen to 81 percent. That's not progress.

How can Washington remedy this situation? One option is adopting the California model of state government appointments.

Like the president, California's governor has appointees who require confirmation by the State Senate. But the rules differ in Sacramento. Once a nomination is announced, an appointee can immediately exercise the full authority of the office instead of waiting to be empowered by the Senate. However, there's a catch. If the State Senate fails to act on the nomination within a year, the nominee is required to resign.

By giving nominees full and immediate authority, a new administration could hit the ground running instead of being at the Senate's mercy for an indefinite amount of time. If the Senate strongly objected to the nominee, it would speed up the confirmation process rather than let it languish.

There are two other ancillary benefits to consider. First, some members of Congress regard appointees as "hostages" only to be "released" (i.e., confirmed) in exchange for a ransom payment from the White House, usually in the form of more government spending. Taking away this leverage could be a way to enforce genuine fiscal discipline. Second, consider those nominees rejected solely on ideological grounds. If the Senate failed to act on a nomination for an entire year, it would be under pressure to demonstrate that its judgment was based on a nominee's competency, rather than partisan differences.

Washington has spoken loudly since September 11, promising a new spirit of unity. Why not reform the appointments process so that the real winners are Americans who believe that integrity rules the day in our nation's capital?