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More Nominees, Faster Please

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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If Barack Obama really cares about an effective federal government, he could do something right now to help his successor, Democrat or Republican: streamline the presidential vetting process for executive-branch jobs.

As it stands, the White House puts all potential nominees for these positions through complex, debilitating and even degrading background checks to avoid the possibility of scandal, conflict of interest (even the appearance of a conflict) or other political embarrassment. And that's before that person goes on to face a new gauntlet in the Senate that may take months or even years. Why would a nominee want to endure this invasion of privacy or put his or her life on hold for a job that won't last longer than the current administration? 

Even if they are game for this, too many excellent people who might have something that looks bad but is harmless in their backgrounds aren't nominated. Maybe it was only an intemperate blog post or throwaway line in a speech or maybe a complicated personal-financial issue.

Yes, the process may eliminate some bad apples -- miscreants on the federal payroll who undermine the effectiveness of government. But the political price of most nominations that fail in the Senate, or executive-branch scandals for poor choices who are confirmed but then cause trouble, isn’t high in most cases. The public rarely notices such things, and even attentive political actors or the media usually forget about them when the next news cycle rolls around.

In addition to the hard-to-measure costs of reducing the hiring pool, it’s also costly to leave jobs vacant for extended periods.

Presidents have only four or eight years to carry out their policies, and isn't easy to wield influence in these departments and agencies under the best circumstances. Leaders undermine their own influence when they choose only the inoffensive or bland to do this work or, even worse, leave the bureaucrats in charge for months at a time.

No president wants to be seen as lowering standards, but Obama never has to run for president again, so he can afford to get rid of the excess. Or he can name a commission to do the work of figuring out exactly what type of vetting is essential for different jobs, so long as the commission is charged to weigh the damage of over-vetting. 

Get a bipartisan set of former White House chiefs of staff to serve as chairmen, and pack the commission with some senators who have dealt with confirmations, some people who have suffered from the process and perhaps a couple of chief executive officers. 

Eliminate the need to report every speech or publication; reduce as much as possible any financial disclosures. Find ways, if possible, to loosen conflict-of-interest requirements, too (which aren't only a burden for many well-meaning nominees, but also cost the administration effort to administer). It shouldn't be necessary for good people to hire a team of lawyers and accountants in order to take these jobs. Nor should someone who has had a successful career be ruled out because of the complicating financial and public records that often go with such achievements (for details of how bad it is now, see the National Academy of Public Administration's 70-plus-page "Survivor’s Guide for Presidential Nominees"). 

White House reforms such as these generally don’t take Congressional cooperation (just as changes the Senate needs to make in its confirmation process don’t need House or presidential cooperation).

Obama has rarely seemed interested in getting his administration staffed up quickly and effectively. Let's hope he has learned how high a priority it should be for all future presidents.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net