President Bush demanded Monday that the Senate more speedily confirm his nominees to top jobs in his administration, saying that his ability to govern effectively is being hindered by the chamber's slow pace.
Issuing the call in the president's name, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer cited data showing that Bush has nominated more people but had fewer of them confirmed than each of his three immediate predecessors at the same point in their terms.
Lawmakers from both parties acknowledge the slow progress in filling the ranks of a new presidential administration, and some political analysts say the delays point to larger problems in the cumbersome and often contentious process. The pace is worsening with each new chief executive, observers say, and increasingly threatens a president's ability to fill his government with the best people available.
Recent surveys show that top potential job candidates view the process as filled with "bureaucratic sediment and random delays and basic unfairness," said Paul C. Light, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution who has studied government transitions.
One survey of Fortune 500 executives, college and university presidents and heads of nonprofit organizations found that more than 50% view the process of going through Senate confirmation as burdensome, confusing, embarrassing and unfair.
In the Bush administration, only 132 out of 315 nominees have been ratified so far--a "growing confirmation gap" that Fleischer said "suggests that the Senate needs to . . . refocus on this as a priority" after the Fourth of July recess.
"There are voids in places where there should not be voids. There are people who are not able to serve in jobs that the nation needs them to serve."
In criticizing the Senate's pace, Fleischer did not exempt Republicans, who controlled the Senate until Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont quit the GOP to become an independent a month ago, giving Democrats control of the Senate.
"The problem is in both parties," Fleischer said. "This is not a partisan issue." He said that "there has been a lag in the last month even more pronounced," with only three confirmations during June, when the Senate transfer of power was underway.
Anita Dunn, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), said the process could have been speedier had Republicans not "blocked" an agreement on the division of Senate power for four weeks.
"Obviously, Republicans controlled the Senate for the first four months of this year," Dunn said. "If the White House has a quarrel with them, they should take it to them."
Light said there is "plenty of blame to go around at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue" for the delays. He said the White House also has been slow in making appointments and cited its lagging efforts to find a new FBI director.
At his daily briefing, Fleischer said that Bush wanted to look ahead, calling on the Senate to step up its confirmation pace "now that a reorganization agreement has been reached in a bipartisan fashion . . . because the only people who get hurt are the citizens of the country when we do not have a government in place."
He said Bush would have spoken out a couple of weeks ago, but chose to wait until the Senate completed its transfer of power, which took place Friday night.
Shortly after Fleischer spoke, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the new Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, announced that hearings on Bush's 26 judicial nominations for spots on federal appellate and district courts would begin July 11.
But the mid-session switch in control of the Senate was only one factor in the slow confirmation pace. Some nominations are being delayed because of controversies surrounding the nominees' views or backgrounds.
"There has never been a president who did not have some nominees that brought up certain levels of controversy," Fleischer conceded, although he did not mention any names.
Among those still awaiting Senate confirmation, and who are likely to encounter opposition, are John D. Negroponte, a career diplomat who is Bush's nominee for U.N. ambassador; Douglas Feith, nominee for undersecretary of Defense for policy; and Steve Griles, nominee for deputy Interior secretary.
One of the most potentially controversial nominees is Negroponte, for whom confirmation hearings have not been scheduled.
Some Democrats have signaled their opposition to him, at least in part because Negroponte directed the secret arming of Nicaragua's Contra rebels while ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985. He also is accused by human rights groups of overlooking, if not actually overseeing, a CIA-backed Honduran death squad during his tenure.
Light cited a number of quick fixes that he said would expedite the confirmation process.
One is to limit the use of "holds" by senators, he said. Any senator now can place a hold on a nominee, which essentially stops a nomination in its tracks.
The original purpose of a hold on a nomination was to afford a senator sufficient time to reach the chamber in order to vote on it. "Now it's used to delay for long periods of time," Light said.
For instance, in a dispute over textile imports, he said, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) has placed a hold since March 28 on the nomination of Kenneth Dam to be deputy Treasury secretary.
"We have entered an era where senators, individual senators, are putting holds on individual people for a wide variety of reasons that seem to be much greater than previously done," Fleischer said.
Another antiquated and emblematic feature of the process is the FBI security clearance form, Light said. They are unavailable online and must be filled out the old-fashioned way: by typewriter.
Some of the questions also are outdated; others are redundant or irrelevant, Light added. For instance, appointees to jobs with national security concerns must list the dates and reasons for every foreign trip going back 15 years.
"That's an old McCarthy-era question used to associate foreign travel with potential subversive influence," Light said. "We could streamline forms so they are not so ridiculous and burdensome."
Given the White House's current pace in filling top jobs, Bush may not have his team fully in place until the end of this year--or later, Light said.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Off to a Slow Start
The number of staff appointments submitted and confirmed for President Bush compared to predecessors, as of June 30:
George W. Bush
Source: Office of the Executive Clerk, White House
Times staff writers Norman Kempster, Eric Lichtblau and Paul Richter contributed to this story.