March 1, 2005

March 1, 2005 | Commentary on

Shorten Gantlet Nominees Run to the Cabinet

If you think it's difficult for a president's cabinet nominees to sit through hearings on Capitol Hill and run the gantlet of hostile questions, consider that the televised portion is only the end of the process.

Long before they testify, these nominees have already spent far too much time filling out forms.

A few years ago, scholars at the James A. Baker Institute calculated that the average nominee must answer 234 questions before he faces senators. Almost 10 percent of those questions are identical and more than 40 percent ask for the same information in slightly different formats. Some forms are designed to be filled out on an old-fashioned typewriter, while others must be completed in ink.

All this simply reinforces the conclusion reached in 1996 by the Twentieth Century Fund's task force on presidential appointments. It found there are "too many questions, too many forms, too many clearances" for nominees.

It's too late for this year's nominees, but there's an answer that would help make the process easier for the next administration. A group of organizations, including think tanks, universities and non-partisan foundations has put together a software program called "Nomination Forms Online."

NFO allows nominees to put all the information they need to provide into one database, so they can answer each question one time. The software then fills in all the required forms. Before 2008, Congress and the White House should agree to accept NFO, or some similar program, for all nominees. All forms should be short, simple and computer-friendly.

There are other ways to streamline the nominations process, too. Because of an executive order issued during the Eisenhower administration, full FBI field background checks are required for any nominee who is subject to senate confirmation. Of course, the number of such nominees has skyrocketed since the 1950s, and thus the time and money spent investigating them has as well.

It makes sense that cabinet secretaries or those who will be working with national security information would have to pass a complete background check. But such investigations shouldn't be required for lower-level nominees in, for example, the Education or Interior departments, and even for many part-time boards and commissions.

Another headache is financial disclosure. Nobody should go into public service to make a buck, so it makes sense to insist that nominees account for their financial holdings. However, the forms nominees must fill out are far too intrusive. For example, they're often required to account for every stock in every mutual fund they hold, and certify that this information is accurate within 48 hours of their confirmation hearing.

Well, few people know from day to day which stocks are in their mutual funds. The whole point of buying such funds is so you don't have to track your holdings on a daily basis. Nominees ought to be allowed to put their stocks into a blind trust that will manage the funds while the nominee is in government.

We also need to speed up the confirmation process. It simply takes too long to get a job as a cabinet official these days.

A study by the Constitution Project at Georgetown University and Professor Wendy Martinek of Binghamton University determined that in 2001, it took an average of 112 days for successful nominees to be confirmed.

That's a substantial increase from President Clinton's first term, when the wait was 52 days. However, it continues a disturbing pattern: Nominees waited an average of 62 days in the first Bush administration, 46 days in President Reagan's second term and just 36 days in Reagan's first term.

If we continue to make the process more intrusive and more expensive -- some nominees spend tens of thousands of dollars hiring advisors to guide them through the nomination maze and make sure they dot every "i" and cross every "t" -- all we're going to do is frighten off the most-qualified candidates.

Directing a cabinet agency is difficult enough. There's no reason to make the nomination process equally exhausting.

Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office