16 October 2007

Government Without Leaders

While agencies need budget authority from Congress to operate, they manage to carry out without much difficulty even without Presidentially nominated and Congressional approved leaders to run them. The New York Times has the scoop:

President Bush has left whole agencies of the executive branch to be run largely by acting or interim appointees — jobs that would normally be filled by people whose nominations would have been reviewed and confirmed by the Senate. In many cases, there is no obvious sign of movement at the White House to find permanent nominees, suggesting that many important jobs will not be filled by Senate-confirmed officials for the remainder of the Bush administration. That would effectively circumvent the Senate’s right to review and approve the appointments. . . . [T]he vacancy rate for senior jobs in the executive branch is far higher at the end of the Bush administration than it was at the same point in the terms of Mr. Bush’s recent predecessors in the White House. . . .

Under a 1998 law known as the Vacancies Reform Act, acting government officials can remain in their posts for 210 days with the full legal authority they would otherwise have with Senate confirmation, with the calendar reset to 210 days once a nominee’s name has been forwarded to the Senate. As of Monday, there are 462 days left in Mr. Bush’s term. . . .

“One of the things we know is that they just aren’t as effective as Senate-confirmed appointees. They just don’t have the standing in their agencies. Acting people are very shy about making decisions.”

Among the higher profile "acting" officials:

Justice Department
* Attorney General (#1 job)
* Deputy Attorney General (#2 job)
* Associate Attorney General (#3 job)
* Director of Office of Legal Counsel
* Director of Office of Legal Policy
* Head of Civil Rights Division
* Head of Natural Resources Division
* Head of Tax Division.
* "More than a quarter of the department’s 93 United States attorneys"

Department of Agriculture
* Secretary of Agriculture

Department of Veterans Affairs
* Secretary of Veterans Affairs

Department of Homeland Security
* General Counsel
* Under Secretary for National Protection
* Assistant Secretary for Strategic Plans

Department of Health and Human Services
* Administrator for Medicare and Medicaid programs.

State Department (and related agencies)
* Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security
* Director of the United States Agency for International Development

I personally favor significant reforms of the political appointment process. The number of positions which are Congressionally appointed should be thinned signficantly, to focus Congressional and Presidential attention on the top spots, while preventing the mere bureacratic task of getting more than 9,000 appointees approved from holding up the show. But, in exchange, the number of days that a non-Congressionally approved official should be able to fill a vacancy should be greatly reduced.

While it might take Constitutional change to achieve, I would favor eliminating the need for Congress to impeach underperforming Congressionally approved appointees, instead allowing Congress to withdraw their approval, by joint resolution, of any offical whom they had previously appointed. This would encourage executive branch officials to give more respect to Congressional intent in executing the laws.

I also favor ending the filibuster, in connection with a substantive requirement that judges (and perhaps anyone else with a term of office that extends beyond the current President and who cannot be fired by the President), be approved by a two-thirds majority on the merits, and an express elimination of the power to make recess appointments of judges.

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