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Opinion
Jonathan Bernstein

Biden’s White House Makes a Telling Mistake

All the vetting required for Senate confirmation imposes real costs — and doesn’t seem to work very well.

Better days.

Better days.

Photographer: Erin Scott/Bloomberg

President Joe Biden’s White House usually gets the nuts and bolts of the presidency right. This week, one example of getting it very wrong was in the news, and it’s worth considering what lessons it holds. The story: White House science adviser Eric Lander, who had cabinet status, resigned after Politico reported on an internal investigation that found he had bullied and mistreated staffers.

A lot of things went wrong. Lander shouldn’t have been nominated to begin with; he drew bipartisan criticism before even being confirmed. Biden himself didn’t help when he publicly pledged to fire any staffer who treated a colleague disrespectfully “on the spot — no if, ands or buts.” A great sentiment, but it set an unrealistic standard that the administration wouldn’t, and shouldn’t, have lived with. Of course they would want to have a process of investigating any allegations of misconduct, but any reasonable system would fall short of Biden’s boast. 

In the event, the White House apparently investigated Lander’s actions and then failed to act until Politico broke the news. At least things moved rapidly once the story went public, although even then Lander was allowed to resign, rather than be fired. All in all, the episode was hardly the administration’s brightest moment.

The lesson, however, is the opposite of what you might think. It’s evidence in favor of, rather than against, the idea that the government does too much vetting for administration posts. Yes, a bad pick does some damage. In this case? Presumably Lander wasn’t very good at his job while he had it, which has costs, and so does the need to fill another vacancy this quickly. 

But intrusive vetting has real costs as well. A lot of people simply aren’t willing to go through the trouble of disclosing all the information needed for Senate confirmation. Especially people with complicated finances or a checkered life history. Yes, for some highly sensitive positions, a thorough vetting is probably a good idea. But most of the hundreds of administration posts that require confirmation (and the even more numerous positions that don’t) aren’t really that sensitive.

So intense vetting reduces the candidate pool, and increases the resources need to fill each position — including calendar time, which is a fixed and limited resource for any presidency.

Yes, reduced background checks would mean more mistakes. More nominees would run into trouble in their confirmation hearings. More would have some embarrassing past episode revealed after taking office, and perhaps need to resign. More might misbehave in various ways. Those are real costs. But as the Lander situation shows, the costs in most cases just wouldn’t be all that high. And one key cost — dealing with the subsequent vacancy after a failed nomination or a fired official — would be a lot lower if nominating people was easier.

The truth is that presidents, their staffs and senators (who are a big part of the problem, since they insist on extensive disclosure) are all being overly risk-averse. It’s understandable; no one wants to be the one who failed to disqualify the bully from office. But in doing so, they’re massively overstating one set of risks, and undervaluing the damage done in trying to avoid those risks. And by the way? It doesn’t even work all that well. As Lander has quite painfully demonstrated.

For weekend reading, here are some of the best items from political scientists this week:

Matt Grossmann talks with Christopher Claassen and Sara Wallace Goodman about public opinion and democracy.

Nadia E. Brown, Christopher J. Clark and Anna Mitchell Mahoney at the Monkey Cage on women’s caucuses.

Michael Tesler on why Republicans are so upset with Biden’s pledge to nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court.

Dave Karpf on the Republicans.

Elaine Kamarck on former President Donald Trump and the Republicans.

Steven Taylor on former Vice President Mike Pence.

And Matthew Shugart on the elections in Costa Rica.