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Obama Can Make His Successor's Life Easier

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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With the political conventions over, both candidates should be hard at work on something we’re not going to see much of until November: the presidential transition. It's the setting in motion of the actual administrations that Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump would run.

In fact, August 1 was “move in day” for this process. Under legislation passed in 2010, the federal government provides office space and other support for both major-party candidates to get started well before Election Day.

They need the time.

What they have to prepare for includes finding people to nominate for executive-branch positions, generally with the consent of the Senate, as well as staffing up the “presidential branch” -- the White House and other agencies within the Executive Office of the President.

It’s an enormous job under the best of circumstances. But it has become much, much harder to find the 4,000 people required to fully staff the government.

Part of the problem is the Senate's blocking of nominations, and that is difficult to fix. But recent presidents have increased the level of scrutiny that all the 4,000 people must undergo. Barack Obama – who among other things foolishly announced a ban on having former lobbyists serve in his administration – has been one of the worst at filling vacancies within his administration.

He has repeatedly failed to nominate people for executive-branch agencies, even allowing the Federal Reserve Board of Governors among other crucial entities to sit without a nominee for months at a time. Yes, the Senate engaged in unprecedented obstruction -- for example, refusing to even hold hearings on Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland. But that doesn't excuse Obama's lapses during both of this terms in providing nominees quickly for other positions.

Obama has one final opportunity to help make the government more functional.

The problem with intense vetting is that it keeps getting ratcheted up. No president ever wants to loosen security or conflict-of-interest restrictions. Nor does anyone want to scale back the efforts to sniff out such problems, no matter how invasive they are and how small the marginal benefit might be. If something went wrong with one hire, a president who eased up on the vetting would be blamed. And any president who adds new layers of vetting is going to be praised by most good-government types, who include pundits and editorial writers. 

But the damage done by the occasional corrupt official who gets through a weak screening, or by a nominee who embarrasses the White House when something turns up in a confirmation hearing, is likely to be much smaller than the harm caused by a process that discourages hundreds of potentially excellent candidates from coming near a government job.

To reverse this trend, the incoming president needs political cover, and that's where the outgoing president could help.

Most important, Obama could form a bipartisan presidential commission to design a more streamlined system, with buy-in from the Senate. Such a panel could not complete its work before January 2017, but it could eventually help the new president keep his or her administration running properly when the first wave of officials needs to be replaced. 

Obama can also use his bully pulpit now on this topic without appearing to be politically motivated. He could at least acknowledge that his ban on filling the jobs with lobbyists was a flop, since many exceptions were already in place even before the courts forced him to partially roll it back. He could even admit his overall shortcomings in making timely appointments, and perhaps explain how the overly high barriers produced a too small group of potential nominees, resulting in delays. 

The cause is important and would do more good for a well-run government than all the speeches about waste, fraud and abuse ever would. This may be the most boring revolutionary slogan ever, but Reduce Vetting Now.

  1. Ideally, senators from both parties would agree in advance to carry out the suggestions of such a commission and would choose a pair of recently retired senators to serve on the body to look after their interests.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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

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