In today's Wonkbook, Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas report on the slow pace the Obama White House is filling many politically appointed positions in the federal bureacracy. Although our nation passed a civil service reform law in 1833 that required government employees to be selected by merit rather than patronage, usually via their performance on a civil service exam, at the highest levels in government bureaucracy, there remains a patronage system. Klein and Soltas's article notes that while high profile cabinet level positions are being filled, many second tier appointee positions in multiple agencies are still vacant:
"[A]bout a quarter of the top jobs at the State Department are empty. The Department of Homeland Security is missing its top cybersecurity appointees. The IRS hasn’t had a director since November. The Commerce Department doesn’t have a chief economist. “’I don’t think it’s ever been this bad,’ said Representative Frank R. Wolf, Republican of Virginia, who recently wrote a letter urging Mr. Obama to act swiftly to fill top vacancies.”
Klein and Soltas were talking about political appointees in the bureaucracy, but another huge class of presidential appointees that remain vacant are within the federal judiciary. David Savage of the LA Times wrote that, "When the 112th Congress adjourned last week [December 2012], the Senate had approved 175 of Obama's judges. By comparison, Bush had 206 judges approved in his first term, and President Clinton had 204 judges confirmed during his first four years." With regard to Obama's first term record on judicial appointments,, Jeffery Toobin has said, "Judicial appointments represent one of the great missed opportunities of the Obama Presidency."
What's going on? I agree with Klein and and Soltas that Obama and Republicans share the blame for this sorry state. Some of the blame is structural. With presidential nominees that require Senate confirmation, the Republicans have made it so that nominees must pass a 60 vote threshold, not a simple majority of 51.
But Klein, Soltas and Toobin also blame the Administration, which has been slow to put forth names of nominees because of their own long, grueling vetting process that Klein and Soltas note, “People who have gone through the vetting in Mr. Obama’s White House describe a grueling process, lasting weeks or months, in which lawyers and political operatives search for anything that might hint at scandal.” Toobin says the following about the vacant judicial posts, "In his first term, especially in the first two years, Obama himself bore much of the blame for this. When Democrats controlled sixty Senate seats, Obama was slow to nominate lower-court judges, and his moment of greatest leverage passed." But he adds, "But, since the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans have been at fault, almost entirely."
The Republicans are wrong to foot drag and block any candidate they don't like. But their behavior is surely payback for many years of the same treatment by Democrats. The Obama Administration though is being a little ridiculous by scrutinizing for months every nominee's life for anything that could cause scandal. At the age of his appointees, presumably seasoned veterans of their fields, virtually everyone has some baggage, you just want to avoid the man or woman with the full Samsonite set. Why not flood the process with a bunch of qualified appointees for every vacant spot, and let the Republicans sort through them? For example, instead of nominating one person to the DC circuit at a time, send four nominees at once since there are four vacancies on that circuit. Some are bound to get through instead of Obama's insistence on picking and choosing only the "perfect" candidates, which allows the Republicans to concentrate their fire on one at a time.