In my earlier post today, I referred to my suggestion that Barack Obama appoint a commission on executive branch appointments to streamline the current process. Commenter David Nieporent (an old friend from r.s.bb. days), isn't impressed:
Really? Your solution to government inability to get things done is... a commission? Isn't that almost too ridiculous to parody?Good question!
Here's the deal: as far as I know, there's a general consensus among everyone that the executive branch appointment process is broken. Appointees are forced to fill out far too much paperwork and disclose too much, and the whole ordeal is both massively unpleasant and ridiculously time-consuming. That's true at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, by the way. The cause? Well, it sounds real good in a presidential campaign to accuse the in-party of cronyism and corruption, and to propose rulebound remedies that lead the candidate, once he's president, to increase the amount of paperwork and disclosure. Of course, most real corruption problems have nothing to do with the sorts of things that would be caught in that kind of procedure. It's highly unlikely, it seems to me, that the sort of gotcha tax stuff that's tripped up various potential appointees is really going to be correlated with a propensity to take large cartoon-style bags of cash (clearly labeled with $ signs) in exchange for regulatory favors. Moreover, a good deal of what gets called corruption isn't, at least in my view, corruption at all. Bush-era and Reagan-era appointees were in many cases kind to corporate interests because that's what those presidents wanted. The cure for that, if you prefer, say, tougher enforcement of regulations on offshore drilling, is to avoid electing presidents who chant "Drill, baby, drill."
The point is that no one actually intended the current system. And everyone agrees that the current system imposes all sorts of costs, from keeping good people out of government to keeping important positions vacant for months.
I also think there probably is some actual uncertainty about exactly what sorts of questions should be asked of incoming presidential nominees. So a working commission actually would have some real questions to answer. Mostly, though, a commission would just be a means for a president (and, with any luck, Congress) to relax the requirements without facing partisan claims of corruption. Hey, it can even claim to be cracking down on past malfeasance that was facilitated by an overly burdensome confirmation process (which is no doubt true: presumably, a fair number of honest and law-abiding citizens will have nothing to do with government service because of the burdens imposed on them. And given that whenever such a commission reports would have its first major effects when the next president was inaugurated, it has a built-in reason for all future presidential candidates to support it. Which should take care of any supermajority requirements in the Senate, right there.
(It's a joke...commission recommendations wouldn't actually need to be enacted through legislation).
More generally...commissions can be useful for fact-finding when there are actual facts to be found; they can also be useful, as I said above, to provide political cover for something everyone wants to do but no one wants credit for. That, of course, is why the current deficit reduction commission is unlikely to work -- there is no agreement between the parties that deficits should be reduced. If I'm wrong -- if there are important players who really do want the current system -- then a commission is unlikely to do any good.