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Meet Senator Thompson

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Weekly Column 06-15-01

Senator Fred Thompson (R-TN)
June 15, 2001
I hope Gale Norton, our new Secretary of Interior, has seen the movie "Home Alone." Because that's what she is as the only confirmed political appointee at the Department of the Interior. Other federal agencies aren't much better off ? The Department of Education has just two of 16 appointees confirmed, or 13 percent; Justice six of 34, 18 percent; Transportation four out of 18, 22 percent; and Treasury just five out of 21, or 24 percent. In fact, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill had to travel all the way around the world to a meeting of the Asian Development Bank because he didn't have the appointee in place that he would ordinarily send. This is a real problem.
When our system of government was designed more than two hundred years ago, the Founding Fathers realized that in order to do the work of the people, the efforts of elected officials would need to be supplemented by the service of non-elected public servants. In order to prevent them from abusing their significant power, our Founding Fathers included in the Constitution a requirement that certain high-ranking officials receive the advice and consent of the Senate in order to assume their influential positions. The theory behind this process is that even though the appointees themselves are not elected, the public can hold the President and Congress responsible for the appointee's actions while he or she serves the public interest.
Over time, our federal government has grown in complexity. The executive branch has expanded immensely, and Congress has been required to handle many more nominations than the Founding Fathers would ever have imagined. The entire appointment process has become so difficult, complex, intrusive, and expensive that some of the best-qualified people are reportedly turning down the opportunity to serve the public. Citing privacy concerns, severe post-employment restrictions, and the sometimes low public image of government officials, potential appointees are reluctant to enter the fray.
It is incumbent on the President and Congress to ensure that appointees meet exacting standards. But all too often the appointment process becomes mired in politics. Nominees face burdensome, duplicative, perhaps unnecessary paperwork, and confusing ethics laws which in large part have lost sight of their initial purpose. In fact, the process of recruiting and confirming nominees has evolved into a bureaucratic maze that has been referred to by some as a "hazing process." It is neither the responsibility nor the right of Congress to divulge every intimate detail of a nominee's life to the public's insatiable appetite for knowledge of its elected officials. While potential conflicts of interest need to be identified, what a nominee did with his or her lunch money in the fourth grade does not.
The broken appointment system is unfair to both the appointee and to the President, and the problem seems to be getting worse with each new administration. If estimates are right, it may take a full year for President Bush's nominees to be appointed and confirmed. The President will be without his necessary key advisors for one-quarter of a presidential term. To date, only 120 out of 495 nominees have been confirmed.
It's clear we're going to have to look at things differently. During my tenure as Chairman of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, I presided over a set of hearings on the state of the presidential appointment process, where those most familiar with the confirmation gauntlet presented thoughtful and reasoned testimony identifying ways to improve the process. Witnesses identified ways the White House can improve the way it addresses the issue. Further, the Senate needs to take a look at timing, the holds process, and the many duplicative forms. The Office of Government Ethics has made recommendations on ways to reduce the paperwork burden nominees must complete.
I plan to pursue improvements in this area. The ability of a President-elect to attract the best people to public service and put them to work is obviously of critical importance. The process must be streamlined in order to make it easier for the President's nominees to accept appointments.
Recently, the Presidential Appointee Initiative released a "Nominee's Bill of Rights," calling for Congress and the White House to treat nominees with fairness, courtesy and respect. Paul Light, Senior Adviser to The Presidential Appointee Initiative, noted, "If we believe - as the Founders did - that public service should be both a duty and an honor, the White House and Congress should make the process simple, fast, and as fair as possible."
I can't imagine anything of greater civic importance than getting the right people to heed the call to public service. Further, we owe it to the President and his key appointees the ability to get a team in place in a timely fashion. The government should not be responsible for maintaining undue barriers to public service, and the President must not be asked to do the people's business with only a skeleton crew in place.

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Fred Thompson

Fred Thompson
Former U.S. Senator (R-TN)