Stakes Are Too High for Posts to Stay Vacant

This was originally published as an exclusive to Politico.

The recent withdrawal of President Barack Obama's pick to head the Transportation Security Administration means that an important homeland security post will continue to remain vacant for some time, an unfortunate occurrence that is symptomatic of a much larger problem plaguing our government.

One year into Obama's term, about 200 of the roughly 500 top Senate-confirmed administration positions are still unfilled. These include the Agriculture Department's undersecretary for food safety, the Defense Department's undersecretary for logistics and materiel readiness, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration and the leader of the Customs and Border Protection agency.

We've seen this play before.

President George W. Bush notably had barely half of his political appointees in place at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks. By the end of his first year, Bush also had some 200 open positions requiring Senate approval. President Bill Clinton faced the same dilemma.

This time was supposed to be different. According to multiple experts, the transition from Bush to Obama was the most effective in modern history. We had a president who made the transition a priority and a president-elect who smartly prepared himself to take office. The truth is, "best ever" isn't good enough.

We need to dramatically overhaul our system for new presidents to get their teams in place. In such volatile times, with countless national security threats, serious economic woes and the increased need for government services, incoming presidents must be immediately ready to govern, and they certainly should be able to fill their top 500 Senate-confirmed positions within six months after taking office.

It seems simple enough, but as with so many things in Washington, it's not nearly as simple as it sounds. The slowness with which nominees are named and confirmed is illustrative of a broader breakdown in the transition of presidential power, and changing it will necessitate a cultural shift and the creation of a higher set of expectations and standards.

As we mark the first anniversary of Obama's Inauguration, we cannot change what has already occurred, but it is time to begin debating these issues and taking action now -- not waiting for history to repeat itself.

In the next go-round, the Senate leadership should agree to vote on the confirmation of the 50 top national security and economic team members on or immediately after the Inauguration. This would include key posts within the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Justice, State and Treasury, provided they are received by a date mutually agreed upon with the incoming administration and no problems with the candidate surface.

The Senate should strive to have 100 appointees confirmed within the first 100 days of an administration and close to all 500 key positions filled by the August recess. At 100 days, Obama had 76 political appointees, or about 15 percent, confirmed. At the summer recess, fewer than 50 percent of his top 500 appointees were in office, and today there is a 40 percent vacancy rate.

Senators are understandably reluctant to relinquish any of their advise-and-consent role, but the number of appointees requiring confirmation, now totaling 1,141, including judges, ambassadors and members of boards and commissions, has ballooned out of control and must be reduced.

The Senate and the current administration also are in a position to remove critical barriers to public service by paring down the onerous, redundant ethical and financial disclosure forms and streamlining background investigations that have gone to the extreme.

We also must change the dynamic from one that considers detailed preparation for governing well before the November presidential election as presumptuously "dancing in the end zone" to one where the American public considers it a duty of its presidential candidates.

The presidential candidates must be deeply engaged in policy and personnel planning prior to the political conventions and should agree to publicly name transition directors within two weeks of their formal nominations. Doing so should then trigger congressional funding, so that the effort is adequately resourced. These steps would signal a campaign's intention to position itself for assuming office, remove the transition planning as a political issue and provide funding that is now lacking or must be raised from private donors.

The high number of political appointees currently still not on the job is the result of many factors, including the lengthy vetting requirements, holds placed by senators for a variety of political and policy reasons and problems in the backgrounds of some nominees.

Some of the blame also can be attributed to Obama's personnel operation. In addition, the president's stringent standards and detailed disclosure requirements, including years of tax records, have discouraged some qualified individuals from pursuing positions, disqualified others and resulted in long periods of inaction.

There must be a new bipartisan commitment to permit a new president to staff his administration and to do so as quickly as possible. During the nation's most recent transition, we were lucky to have a president and president-elect who prudently prepared and cooperated with each other. But before the next presidential transition, we must make legislative changes and come to a common understanding that our national and economic security cannot be left to luck.

Max Stier is president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service.