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High Federal Appointments by Extortion, Congress-Style

July 16, 2001|JONATHAN RAUCH | Jonathan Rauch is a senior writer at the National Journal and author of "Government's End: Why Washington Stopped Working" (Public-Affairs, 2000). This piece is adapted from an article in the National Journal

Almost an eighth of the way through President George W. Bush's term, his administration is still more than three-fourths empty. The average time required for a new administration to get its appointees named and confirmed increased from about two months under President Kennedy to more than eight months under President Clinton. Bush looks likely to break the record again.

Why? Ask Stephen E. Herbits. Herbits is a retired business executive and former Pentagon and Capitol Hill staffer who has been recruiting for Republican administrations since President Ford. In January 1981, it took him seven or eight weeks to find people for 41 or 42 jobs in the Reagan Pentagon. In 1989, it took seven or eight weeks to provide the same service to the first President Bush's Defense secretary, Dick Cheney.

And in 2001, for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld? Fifteen weeks.

"There are lots of problems here," he said. "But there's one set of problems that needs to be surfaced a lot more, and that's Congress."

For instance, senators customarily send names of candidates for jobs to the president. The candidates are of two sorts: courtesy and serious.

"When they send serious candidates, you appreciate it," Herbits said. "The problem is what happens when they want someone specific in a specific job."

Take the Republican senator who insisted on having his own man named as the Pentagon's inspector general. As leverage, the senator held up another Pentagon nomination. Persuading him to back down took a couple of months and a White House promise to investigate something or other.

"There were always holds on people because members of Congress wanted to lecture somebody," Herbits said. "That's traditional. This year, it got beyond that, in my mind. What was different is how blatant it was and how frequent it was. 'The senator won't confirm X until Y is hired'--it's that blatant. ... I know of one case specifically where two senators sat down with representatives of the department and told them, 'You are building facilities split between our two states in the following way.' It was pure, unadulterated pork."

Then there are the courtesy candidates. "It's obvious that most of them are not remotely qualified," Herbits said. "It's widespread among members of Congress that they use this as a service for their constituents." In the past, the number of courtesy candidates was, Herbits said, maybe two dozen. Now? Three hundred or 400. Interviewing them, corresponding with them and corresponding with their congressional patrons took much of the time of several dozen people.

Plus, Herbits said, congressional staff members want jobs, and their bosses want them to get jobs. "What's new is they've gotten bolder, and they attack the building with leaks [if they are disappointed]. . . . If you turn them down, you turn them down at some risk."

And then there are the ethics rules. "I went after candidates who said, 'I simply won't put myself through this process.' Or, 'I can't sell everything I hold now.' " Because the Pentagon does business with practically everyone, there are thousands of corporations whose stock must be divested by appointees.

"It is more difficult to recruit top-flight people now than it was 12 years ago and 25 years ago," Herbits said, "in part because the ethical preventive constraints are so onerous and in part because of the lack of dignity with which these people are treated."

Right through the spy plane crisis with China in April, only two top Pentagon officials, the secretary and deputy secretary, had been confirmed and were at work.

"If something comes along, like the China airplane, you just stop doing everything else. A huge number of other things don't get done," Herbits said. "And mistakes . . . in a crisis situation, mistakes can cost lives."

As of early July, three-fourths of the top Pentagon nominees were still unconfirmed. This is no way to run a railroad or a dog pound, but for the government's most critical department, apparently it will have to do.

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