Appointment Apocalypse?

Republicans are worried that Democrats who now control the Senate might stall the confirmation process for many of President Bush's nominees to the federal bench. But of more immediate concern is the tortuously slow progress that has been made in filling high-level positions in the executive branch. That has less to do with partisan politics than with a process grown so unwieldy and time-consuming that it threatens to impede a president's very ability to govern.

Forty years ago, President John F. Kennedy had virtually all of his senior appointees in place little more than two months after his inauguration. But it took more than eight months before the last of President Clinton's sub-Cabinet nominees was confirmed, and at the current pace all the second-and third-tier spots in the Bush administration might not be filled until February. One academic expert warns of "an appointments apocalypse."

Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) of the Governmental Affairs Committee points to a number of causes for the delays. For starters, the executive branch has grown enormously in the last four decades, under both Democratic and Republican presidents, creating far more high-level positions. Then there are the extensive background investigations done first by the White House and then the Senate, using the resources of the FBI and the Office of Government Ethics. These require painstakingly detailed disclosure statements by nominees.

Has the nominee traveled outside the United States in the last 15 years? List all places visited and the dates. List all assets, and the names, addresses and phone numbers of family, friends and past employers. No wonder 73% of nominees had to hire outside consultants to help prepare their statements.

Thompson and Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), who last week succeeded Thompson as chairman of Governmental Affairs, think that security and conflict-of-interest concerns could be satisfied without such intrusive demands for disclosure and time-consuming investigations. Fewer than one-fourth of Bush's sub-Cabinet level nominees have so far been approved. An executive branch forced to operate at that low level of efficiency isn't serving the president or the country.

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