24 January 2011

Senate Considers Shrinking Plum Book

The Plum Book is the compliation of politically appointed posts in the United States Government, all of which, in the executive branch, require a nomination by the President or someone appointed by the President. It is a long publication. Indeed, an entirely too long publication.

The U.S. Senate is now considering the long term, bipartisan effort to thin that list.

Senior senators are negotiating to reduce the 1,400 presidential appointments subject to time-consuming Senate confirmation, hoping to streamline a system that has frustrated administrations of both parties. . . . 100 posts or more could be dropped from the list if discussions between Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), result in an agreement that gains the support of the rank and file in both parties. Judicial appointments would not be affected, nor would the most senior positions at Cabinet departments or independent agencies. . . . The talks between Schumer and Alexander were set in motion by agreement between Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). . . . the number of core policy positions has risen from 295 in 1981 when President Ronald Reagan took office to 422 when President Obama arrived at the White House.

After selection by the president, each appointee for a post requiring confirmation generally submits paperwork to a Senate committee that will handle the review and then makes a series of courtesy calls on individual lawmakers, who sometimes use the opportunity to extract promises in exchange for speedy approval.

Nominees generally testify and answer question at a public hearing, the committee acts and then, in a final step, the entire Senate votes. The process can move speedily - or take months, even if there is no apparent opposition. The sheer volume can slow the pace.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has jurisdiction over 303 posts, including 185 ambassadors. The Senate Judiciary Committee oversees 252, including 92 U.S. attorneys and 92 U.S. marshals. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has control over 101, and the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee over 83.

The biggest problem is that getting the U.S. Senate to do anything can take a long time, and getting it to handle 1,400 appointments can take a very long time, even if many are not controversial. The level of positions the negotiations would remove are deputy assistant undersecretaries and the like, not high level posts, and all of the positions removed would report to someone more senior. The filibuster's growing use and secret holds have effectively given a heckler's veto to every Senator concerning every such nomination.

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