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Update the Long-Outdated Approval Process

As the saying goes, if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog. And if you are a presidential appointee, I recommend you should buy the dog as soon as you are nominated, because the approval and confirmation processes can be a rough ride.

If you don’t believe me, just ask any of the folks on either side of the aisle who in recent years have run into a variety of different buzz saws for substantive or, occasionally, less than substantive reasons.

During my time in the Senate I have found political appointees to be dedicated and diligent professionals who want to make a difference for their country. They often leave high-paying corporate jobs only to find their commitment requires an increase in workload and a decrease in salary. Before they even begin to work for Uncle Sam, however, they must first navigate the complex, turbulent and outdated presidential appointments process, an area where reviews and recommendations for improvement have gone unheeded for far too long.

In 1937, the Brownlow Committee issued the first report on improving the presidential appointments process. Sixty-six years and 14 reports later, we are still trying to enact meaningful reform in this arena. After a close look, one begins to wonder why we have not been able to streamline the process for appointing our nation’s top political employees.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that the current system for processing political appointees runs the risk of driving good people away from appointed government service. If it is not the delays then it is the paperwork, and if it’s not the paperwork then — if the position requires confirmation — it is some unrelated political dispute in the Senate. For the past several years, I’ve been interested in reforming the civil service to help taxpayers get a better value for their dollar. The presidential appointee process is part of this challenge.

To capture the essence of the problem, understand first that the number of politically appointed positions has grown from 286 to 3,361 over the past four decades. This increase is straining an already overburdened system, as the time it takes to complete an appointment has increased from just over two months during the Kennedy administration to eight months for the current White House.

During the 107th Congress, several events occurred to elevate the importance of this issue.

First, on Feb. 15, 2001, the Hart-Rudman Commission issued its report titled “Road Map for National Security: Imperative for Change,” which in part examined the presidential appointments process. The commission’s final report observes, “[T]he ordeal to which outside nominees are subjected is so great, above and beyond whatever financial or career sacrifice is involved, as to make it prohibitive for many individuals of talent and experience to accept public service.”

Second, on April 4 and 5, 2001, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee held two days of hearings on the state of the presidential appointments process. During those hearings, Paul Light from the Brookings Institution said, “[P]ast and potential presidential appointees alike view the process of entering office with disdain, describing it as embarrassing, confusing and unfair. They see the process as far more cumbersome and lengthy than it needs to be.”

Third, on May 16, 2001, Governmental Affairs passed then-Sen. Fred Thompson’s (R-Tenn.) bipartisan bill to streamline the presidential appointments process that I co-sponsored with Sens. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Dick Lugar (R-Ind.). Though it passed the Governmental Affairs Committee it never passed the full Senate.

When it became clear that the Senate was not going to act on the bill, I promised Thompson, who has retired, that I would continue his work in this area. Therefore, this year I reintroduced S. 765, the Presidential Appointments Improvement Act of 2003. Fortunately, there was so much work completed on this bill in 2002 that I do not feel we are starting from square one. In fact, Rep. Jo Ann Davis (R-Va.), an emerging leader on federal personnel issues in the House, introduced a companion bill, H.R. 1603. This bodes well for the two chambers taking action on the legislation this year, as the House did not have a companion bill in the 107th Congress.

The four main provisions of the bill include (1) streamlining the financial disclosure forms for executive branch employees; (2) requiring agencies to examine the number of presidentially appointed positions; (3) allowing presidential candidates to obtain a list of appointee positions 15 days after they receive their party’s nomination; and (4) requiring the Office of Government Ethics to review the conflict-of-interest laws.

The principles behind the Presidential Appointments Improvement Act are simple and, given the bipartisan nature in which the bill passed through the Governmental Affairs Committee last spring, I am confident that we can capitalize on that momentum and enact real reform this Congress. Although it will not solve all the problems with the appointments process, and it will do little to take the politics out of the confirmation review — little can change that — this bill is an important first step for updating an outdated system.

Most importantly, I hope it will encourage good people to say “yes” to public service. The best hope we have of improving the quality of the services Americans receive from the federal government is encouraging the best and brightest Americans to provide them.

Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) is a member of the Governmental Affairs Committee.

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