Against Excessive Vetting

by Jonathan Bernstein

I tend to be pretty generous in my grades for President Obama, thirteen months in.  I think that he's handled a lot of things well, and those that haven't gone the way he originally wanted, I think, have often been cases in which he just lost.  That happens sometimes, even with large Congressional majorities.

Where I do think that Obama has done a poor job, really inexcusably, is on nominations, both executive and judicial.  Yes, he's had to deal with a rejectionist Republican Party ready to filibuster everything, but that's no excuse for not even nominating people.

There is one structural change that I would recommend, especially for executive branch nominations: just stop vetting them, already.  The White House can't tell Congressional committees what to do, but by all accounts the initial vetting for these jobs is far, far, more than necessary.  That is, if presidents scaled way back on vetting, the occasional dud would get through, and...what?  Would it ruin the presidency?  No, it wouldn't.  For example, the White House shouldn't have nominated Van Jones.  Whatever his other strengths or weaknesses, and whatever his actual beliefs about the September 11 attacks, his support of the "truther" add made him toxic.  And in fact, that weakness was exposed, and he resigned. damage was done.  Is it really better to have no one at all in a large number of positions, with all the damage and wasted opportunity involved, then to take a slightly larger risk that something will go wrong?  No, it isn't.  This kind of surface risk-aversion is a real mistake.

Here's what I've recommended.

Appoint a commission.  Put on it a couple of former chiefs of staff, a couple of former Senate committee chairs, and a couple of corporate executives with experience in hiring people, and a couple of people who have had to be vetted for mid-level jobs in a executive branch department or agency.  Tell them that you want them to report back in three months with a streamlined vetting process.  For executive branch positions other than those in sensitive national security areas, it should be no more intrusive, expensive, or difficult than whatever major corporations do when they're hiring someone.  And then, implement the new process immediately, and get some nominees sent up to the Senate.

Meanwhile, nominate judges!  There's just no excuse for leaving so many positions open.

Of course, that still leaves the broken confirmation process, but that's mostly beyond Obama's control, although I agree with those who say he could be fighting a lot harder for his nominees (threatening recess appointments shouldn't have taken thirteen months, for example).  One thing at a time, especially when it's something that Obama can do on his own.  The nominations process is broken, and if Obama cares about governing, he should fix it.