Early Transition Prep Would Help Fix Government

Posted April 20, 2010 at 4:38pm

For those of us who want Congress and government to work as intended, the latest Pew Research Center poll is especially disturbing. It shows a deep and broad anger that Americans of all persuasions feel toward Washington, and especially toward Congress. As Andy Kohut, the Pew director, describes it:

[IMGCAP(1)]• Just 22 percent say they can trust the government in Washington almost always or most of the time, among the lowest measures in more than half a century.

• Opinions about elected officials are particularly poor: 65 percent have an unfavorable view of Congress, the most negative rating for Congress in a quarter-century of Pew Research Center surveys.

• Favorable ratings for federal agencies and institutions have fallen since 1997-1998 for seven of 13 federal agencies included in the survey.

As I travel around the country, I see and feel the despair and anger, which, as Kohut notes, is driven by disappointment with the performance of the government. The Senate is a particular target, in part because of the way the use and abuse of the rules have turned a deliberative body into one where obstruction, obstreperousness and delay are now no longer reserved for a handful of huge issues but are common for smaller ones and even ones where there is broad consensus. But so is the executive branch, which I believe began to deteriorate in voters’ eyes after Hurricane Katrina and plummeted further after the creation of the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

There are, or should be, distinctions here: The federal response to Katrina was a genuine failure of public administration; TARP will likely be seen by historians as a success, one filled with problems because it was in essence a triage, done quickly to avoid deep catastrophe in the form of a credit meltdown leading to depression and deflation, but one that prevented the catastrophe at an ultimately modest cost to taxpayers.

Still, few people outside the Beltway see it that way, and in any case, the twin issues do point to the importance in governing of having deep benches of experienced and effective public servants able to act with dispatch and competence at the time of a crisis — and in the day-to-day administration of government.

The biggest gap in performance for an otherwise admirably competent administration has been its own inexplicable delays in moving forward with the key nominations below the Cabinet level to actually run the government. More than 15 months into the Obama presidency, a large number of key posts in key agencies remain unfilled, with too many yet to have people formally nominated for the posts. An early, admirable record on the personnel side has slid into a poor one compared with previous administrations.

Of course, the White House is not the only culprit here. Hundreds of Obama nominees have been held hostage by Senators to outrageous delays for reasons often wholly unrelated to the competence of the nominees or the importance of their offices; high among the Senate’s many blemishes right now is the collapse of reasonable action and comity on confirmation of presidential appointments to executive agencies.

The country needs and deserves both serious reform of the nomination and confirmation processes — something begun before the 2008 election by Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) but never completed — and real change in the Senatorial hold process. A great reform would be to cut the number of Senate-confirmable posts, which have ballooned unreasonably in recent decades, something attacked in another bipartisan bill introduced by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.).

And now we have another strong reform proposal to improve the presidential transition process, to institutionalize the ability of presidential candidates to plan their administrations long before the election, to hit the ground running instead of stumbling.

People often ask me whether there is anyone in Congress they can admire and trust. I give them a long list, because there are so many Members of both parties who are honest and conscientious and who came to Washington to make a difference in peoples’ lives, even if the whole is now struggling to become something even in the neighborhood of the vicinity of the area of the sum of its parts. One who is always high on my list is Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.). I can’t think of anybody who has come to Congress better prepared to contribute immediately across the widest range of issues or with more of a commitment to act in the public interest.

Kaufman has joined with Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) to propose a set of common-sense ways to change the pre-election transition process, providing money and facilities to the parties’ nominees while also providing serious encouragement to the outgoing administration, if there is one, to help ensure a smooth and effective changeover via a transition council and briefing materials from agencies. The model here was provided by the George W. Bush administration, which facilitated the best transition process in modern times in 2008.

That process worked remarkably well, but was still done largely surreptitiously before the election, to avoid charges of presumptuousness on the part of candidates who had not yet been elected by voters. But preparing to govern, and especially being ready to nominate the thousand-plus individuals serving in important policy posts across agencies and get them in their positions expeditiously, is not presumptuous — it is the height of responsibility, especially in the age of terrorism and other threats to our well-being.

The Kaufman-Voinovich plan would institutionalize direct and overt transition planning and give it legitimacy. It is also a template for how people across the political spectrum who care about the process of governing and who understand how important process is to outcomes, can find common ground. It would be a great valedictory gift to both of these retiring Senators to enact this bill to help future presidencies — which means helping the voters who elect them get the competent government they want and deserve.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.