13 September 2005

Presidential Appointments.

There are lots of people appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate in the U.S. Government. There are 1137 in the Executive branch and there are 9 Justices on the Supreme Court, 179 Court of Appeals judgeships, and 662 district court judgeships, in the Judicial branch for a total of 2,287 civilians. All military officers also have their commissions approved by the Senate upon Presidential nomination. There are more than 190,000 of them.

The civilian executive branch appointees include:

A U.S. Attorney and U.S. Marshall in every judicial district (178);
At least 144 ambassadors;
446 Executive Schedule officials; and
339 unclassified employees (most of whom are commission members who serve without compensation or with nominal compensation).

The Executive Schedule officials are made up of:
17 Level I (Cabinet Members).
36 Level II (Deputy Secretaries).
99 Level III (Under Secretaries and Agency Chiefs).
275 Level IV (Assistant Secretaries, Deputy Undersecretaries, General Counsels).
19 Level V (Deputy Assistant Secretaries, Administrators, Commissioners and Directors).

The reality is that no more than a handful of executive branch appointments are ever contested, creating an institutional norm that the job of the Senate is to rubber stamp appointments. Each Senator has only a handful of staffers available to review the qualifications of nominees, and as a result each nominee receives a less than through review. The appointment of Michael Brown as FEMA director, with Senators praising him in prepared comments, despite the fact that his resume was fraudulent and his experience in the field was negligable, shows how unqualified people can slip through the cracks when the Senate is overwhelmed by nominees to vet, as it is now. Moreover, even the President is often ill equipped to fill the bonanza of executive branch positions available for him to fill upon taking office, without resorting to the sort of cronyism that makes being a college friend of a political insider more important than qualifications. One would hope that cabinet secretaries, by virtue of their expertise in a subject area and smaller number of appointments available to them, would be a better job in this regard.

The easiest way to free up Senate resources to give important appointments adequate review, and to speed up the process of getting a new government into place when a new President takes office (which takes massive quantities of forms, FBI background checks and the Congressional process), would be to remove Congress from review of less important positions.

Specifically, in an ideal world, I would favor ending Senate appointment of the following executive branch officials:

* 178 U.S. Marshalls and U.S. Attorneys for judicial districts, which would be vested in the Attorney General.
* 294 Level IV and V Executive Schedule positions, which would be vested in the supervising cabinet officers.
* All but about 200 military commissions of ranks O-8 to O-10 (senior generals).

Many of the less significant commission posts would also be appointed by the President (e.g. the National Council on Library and Information Science) without Senate input.

This would greatly reduce the number of civilian and military appointees going through the Senate confirmation process, bringing the number reviewed to a manageable level, while retaining almost all positions receiving real Senate scrutiny. Thus, there would be more time to consider agency heads, like the FEMA director, and less time spent on a cursory review of officials like Deputy Undersecretaries and Deputy Assistant Secretaries.

I would also end the process of having FBI background checks for appointees whose fields are not in the national security area, a cumbersome process that shifts responsibility when poor judgment is exercised in an appointment and which greatly delays the appointment process.

These modest changes, which would not require a constitutional amendment, maintain an orderly process of government, while strengthening the Senate confirmation process by making it more than a rubber stamp.

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