Stop the Excessive Vetting of Executive-Branch Nominees

With four more executive-branch nominees confirmed this week, the Senate has now confirmed 33 of President Joe Biden’s selections to key executive-branch positions, as tracked by the Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service.

With two weeks to go before his presidency’s 100th day, Biden has already passed Donald Trump’s 25 such confirmations by that marker, and has now equaled George W. Bush (31) and will soon pass him. There’s an outside chance he could catch Bill Clinton (45), although he’ll fall well short of the 68 that Barack Obama and the Senate finished in 2009 in Obama’s first 100 days.

For the most part, it’s a Senate story, not a Biden story. Republicans are dragging their feet (as Democrats did during the Trump presidency), and while Democrats could threaten to keep the Senate in session instead of taking recesses or weekends to put pressure on Republicans, there’s not much they can do under current rules and precedents.

Early on, Biden’s pace in sending these choices to the Senate was somewhat disappointing. He’s doing much better now. One month ago he had announced 67 picks; he’s up to 134 now.

That still leaves hundreds of positions open. He hasn’t nominated a replacement director for the Office of Management and Budget after his first pick failed, and no one for secretary of the Navy, assistant attorney general for the antitrust division, undersecretary for international affairs at Treasury, deputy secretary at Veterans Affairs, and more. But overall he appears headed toward one of the best marks over the last 40 years.

Biden is also smashing all records for gender diversity. This is a huge story, and still underappreciated, as far as I can see. Other presidents have moved ahead on this road, but Biden has simply achieved that goal. 

So far, 16 women and 17 men have been confirmed, and 54 women and 47 men are in the pipeline, using the WaPo/Partnership key positions data. That means 52% of the nominations so far have been women. By comparison, and using a slightly different group of positions for the first 300 days, Kathryn Dunn Tenpas has Obama as the previous leader, with women making about 29% of confirmed nominees.

Biden certainly deserves credit here. But women have been at the center of energy within the Democratic Party for the last five years, and Biden, as usual, is merely positioning himself in the middle of wherever the Democrats are.

As for the pace of filling vacancies, the system is still crying out for reform. Biden can’t do much about the delays on the Senate floor.  He could, however, speed things up on the front end by doing what I’ve been urging for years: Stop vetting these choices so carefully. The process is excessively risk-averse, forcing nominees through rigorous disclosure that’s more than is needed to catch most serious problems.

The truth is that a failed nominee does little damage to a presidency, and even a confirmed nominee who turns out to have been a preventable dud rarely provokes a scandal that anyone outside of Washington pays attention to. Obviously, it’s not a good thing if some assistant secretary somewhere rips off the taxpayers, takes bribes to influence policy, or simply has a conflict of interest that compromises her judgment. Yet it’s a bad thing that some 400 key offices have no nominee almost three months into a 48-month presidency.

Of course, real change would also require the cooperation of the Senate, which is just as bad with its overly intrusive disclosure requirements. And even if those demands eased, slowdowns from the out party cause the biggest bottleneck right now.

Still, easing up on disclosure requirements wouldn’t just speed things up. It would also remove the disincentive to serve: Those with complicated finances, or any complex background, have to go through a lot of hassle just to get their names before the Senate, even if they are completely on the up and up. Reducing the pool willing to serve the nation means the federal government isn’t as good as it can be.

If presidents do less vetting, they’ll get better nominees, and spend less time on them. As for the Senate, the more it can’t handle processing nominations, because of strict disclosure practices or because of minority-party obstruction, the less influence members from both parties have over the federal bureaucracy.

Biden probably knows this area better than any president ever, and certainly since the modern era of polarization over executive-branch nominations began. Perhaps over the next few years he’ll make some effort to improve things: Less vetting, please!

1. Phillip Y. Lipscy and Mary M. McCarthy at the Monkey Cage on  Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide’s visit to Washington.

3. Geoffrey Skelley on independents and partisanship.

4. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Timothy L. O'Brien on corporate America and democracy.

5. David Wasserman and Ally Flinn have the new Cook partisan index scores.

6. And Alyssa Rosenberg on the culture wars.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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