A bill that would reduce the number of executive branch positions that require Senate confirmation passed its first test in Congress Wednesday, clearing the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee on a voice vote.
The measure would reduce by about 200 the number of positions that require approval through a vetting process that administrations of both parties have complained takes far too long and deters well-qualified candidates from stepping forward to accept high-level presidential appointee positions.
Figures provided by the committee indicate that 18 months after President Obama’s inauguration, one quarter of his appointments remained unconfirmed by the Senate.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the committee’s ranking member, said one contributor to the sluggishness in the confirmation process was the huge growth in the number of positions that, by law, are required to be approved by the Senate.
“When President Kennedy came to office, he had 286 positions that required Senate confirmation,” she said. “By the end of the Clinton administration, there were 914. Today, the Rules Committee puts that figure at 1,409 that require the consent of the Senate. That’s nearly a 400 percent increase.”
Collins contended the delay in confirming appointees represented a national security concern, citing a 9/11 Commission report that found significant delays in confirming sub cabinet-level appointees at the Defense Department.
“Our enemies take note of that as well. It’s not a coincidence that al-Qaeda tends to strike at the beginning of administrations,” she said.
The measure appears to have broad support. It is co-sponsored by both the Senate minority leader and majority leader and more than a dozen other senators. Its authors tried to take a cautious approach to the list of positions they were eliminating from Senate confirmation in order to avoid turf battles with committee chairs who don’t want to erode their prerogative to oversee important appointments.
Collins and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), the committee chairman, said the guidelines they used were to only remove positions that don’t have policymaking or budgetary authority, and those that already report to other Senate-confirmed officials.
Collins said most of the appointees they aimed to exempt from confirmation were in part-time advisory positions.
“Should the Senate really be spending its time confirming the 10 part-time members of the National Institute for Literacy advisory board? Or the 20 part time members of the National Museum and Library Services Board? All of these people have to go through the complete nomination and confirmation process,” she said.
Not all of the positions are part-time jobs, however, and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), voted against the measure on the grounds that some of the appointees contemplated in the bill oversee billions of dollars in grant funding. He suggested that Congress instead let any nominee whose confirmation had not been considered by the Senate within three months of their appointment be deemed confirmed. That, he said, would let senators raise questions about nominees they were concerned about, while letting others sail through.
“It’ll force us to do the work on the important ones,” he said. “In several of these positions, we’ve found we need to do our homework. And we’ve found significant issues where the names have been withdrawn. We would not have had that if we hadn’t gone through the process.”
The measure also would relieve agency Chief Financial Officers from having to be confirmed, although many are already not subject to confirmation.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who is also a former director of the Office of Management and Budget, said he was concerned about degrading the importance of CFOs, and that doing so would run counter to what Congress attempted to do when it passed the CFO Act in the early 1990s.
“I think about the private sector, and if the CFO is not one of the top three or four most important people, it’s probably not a very well-run company,” he said.
In the end, Senators decided to refer the CFO issue to the Rules Committee, which plans to consider separate legislation that would create a fast-track nomination path for some categories of presidential appointees.
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