H. Rodgin Cohen, “the leading candidate for Deputy Treasury Secretary, has withdrawn from consideration,” ABC News chief Washington correspondent George Stephanoupoulous reports. He adds, “Cohen had risen to the top after the withdrawal last week of expected deputy treasury secretary pick Annette Nazareth.”
University of Tennessee Law professor Glenn Reynolds observed yesterday that the list of failed appointees is long, including “Chas Freeman, Sanjay Gupta, Annette Nazareth, Tom Daschle, Bill Richardson, Nancy Killefer . . . and Judd Gregg.”
Tufts University political scientist Dan Drezner asks, “Has the vetting process in DC become too absurd, or are Obama’s subcabinet candidates too thin-skinned?”
I’m inclined to think it’s the former. New York University political scientist Paul Light wrote about the problem last June. He notes the sheer scope of the process:
The reality is that the appointments process has been getting later and later with each passing administration. John F. Kennedy had his Cabinet and sub-Cabinet in place by early spring of 1961, Reagan by early fall of 1981, Clinton by early winter of 1992 and George W. Bush by mid-winter of 2002.
There are two reasons for the increasing delay. First, the number of presidential appointees has more than tripled to 3,000-plus over the past 40 years. Roughly 600 of the total are subject to Senate confirmation, which operates on a first-come, first-served basis and can only accommodate so many nominations at a time.
The rest of the 3,000 are “at will” appointees who serve at the president’s pleasure. These alter-ego chiefs of staff and assistant assistants are nearly invisible to the public, but wield enormous influence in the executive branch by acting as closely watched enforcers for the White House agenda. As such, they receive just as much scrutiny in the review process as their much more visible Senate-confirmed bosses.
Second, the process itself is nasty, brutish, and not at all short. Nominees must wait for months as the White House, FBI, IRS, Office of Government Ethics, and Senate inspect the 60 pages of forms that must be filled out on the way to confirmation, including one that still has to be completed by typewriter. The process produces tons of paper, but has almost no bearing on the quality of the nominee.
To be sure, quite a few of the top jobs in the Obama cabinet were filled essentially by acclamation, with several confirmed on or within a week of the inauguration. But there are simply too many confirmable positions and too much room for lobbying and political backstabbing even on “at will” appointments such as Freeman.
There’s got to be a better way.
I talked last week with a senior European official, who remarked about the fact that so many European officials were in town anxious to talk to their counterparts in the new administration only to find out that, as Drezner points out in a separate post, there’s nobody in those posts yet. And, as the excerpt from Light above makes clear, some of the vacancies could remain for a year or more.
By contrast, Europeans manage bring in not only the new head of government but a functioning ministry within days of an election. It’s harder in the United States, since we don’t have a parliamentary system and thus have no shadow government. But, surely, we could figure out how to appoint 600 people and get them cleared for duty between the second Tuesday in November and noon on January 20th — a period of over ten weeks?
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.