What started as an isolated phenomenon has become an epidemic. Important posts throughout the Obama administration sit vacant. A combination of our complicated system of filling political positions and the administration's hypersensitivity toward ethics is starting to negatively affect our government's ability to function in a time of crisis.
It all began so well for members of the Obama administration. They came to town determined to avoid the mistakes of their predecessors, and until the end of December, the transition proceeded flawlessly.
That stood in marked contrast to the past two Democratic presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, who started with a thud. Both were outsider presidents who initially disdained the ways of Washington, brought in many people from their home states who had no Washington experience, and had hastily and poorly constructed White House staffs at the start. The Obama machine aimed to outdo its Democratic predecessors and even the more successful transitions of Republicans George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan.
One of President Barack Obama's most impressive traits is his appreciation for Washington talent and his willingness to hire people more seasoned than him. Obama quickly assembled a White House staff, headed by Rahm Emanuel, who had cut his teeth in the Clinton White House and in congressional leadership. In foreign policy, Obama sought out experienced and moderate figures such as Bob Gates, Jim Jones and his rival for the presidency, Hillary Clinton. Among the czars and advisers in the White House, he has a former secretary of the treasury and head of the Environmental Protection Agency. And as foreign policy envoys, George Mitchell, Dennis Ross and Richard Holbrooke are all secretary of state material.
But problems emerged. Bill Richardson pulled out as secretary of commerce, and current Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's tax issues led to greater scrutiny of other nominees. Tom Daschle bowed out as Health and Human Services secretary, and several lower-level appointees also withdrew. In the middle of a worldwide economic crisis, foreign leaders fret about the lack of political decision makers to answer their calls, leading Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to rib Geithner that treasury appointees were like Marines: few and proud.
The current mess over personnel is systemic, but the Obama administration has made it worse.
The way that America staffs its executive branch is unique around the world but also nearly broken. When parliamentary governments change, only the ministers who run each department are replaced; the rest of government is staffed by career civil servants. America has many knowledgeable and dedicated career servants, but they are further down the chain of command.
The American system brings in more than 600 political appointees confirmed by the Senate to the top four levels of government. Add in political appointees who do not require Senate confirmation--most White House staffers, deputy assistant secretaries, chiefs of staff, etc.--and a new administration needs to find more than 3,000 people to come to Washington to run the executive branch.
There is something uniquely American and invigorating about the process. Experienced people from the private sector, nonprofits, universities and think tanks can serve their government without dedicating their entire careers to public service. A new administration brings new blood and enthusiasm for the president's priorities.
But the system is out of whack. When John F. Kennedy assumed the presidency in 1961, the average Senate-confirmed nominee was on the job just two months after the Inauguration. With each new president, that time has lengthened, with the Bush and Clinton administration appointees taking an average of over 10 months.
The reasons for the sclerosis are many: a growing number of political appointees, an overly careful vetting and a set of forms and bureaucratic hurdles that scare many potential nominees away, a Senate that holds up nominees for cause or as pawns in other political battles.
The Obama administration has made this set of problems worse with its overly broad prohibitions against lobbyists in government and its gun-shy reaction to the tax problems of a few of its early nominees.
It sounds good to say that you will change Washington, banish the influence of the private sector and have squeaky-clean nominees. But it ignores the reality of bringing so many people into government. Do you want to exclude the aerospace expert who works for industry or the environmental lawyer who advocates for the Sierra Club? We already have extensive disclosure and conflict resolution mechanisms. To up the ante by prohibiting lobbyists or to take an overly fine-toothed comb to tax returns is likely to drive away many experienced public-spirited individuals.
The Obama administration's early picks oozed maturity and experience. The turn to nitpicking may mean that the seats stay vacant longer and the people who ultimately fill them lack not only the warts but also the wisdom that a long career brings.
John C. Fortier is a research fellow at AEI.