August 11, 2012

A backlog that has left many government agencies without presidential appointees for months at a time may ease a bit because President Obama signed legislation on Friday exempting scores of government positions from Senate confirmation.

Under the new law, 166 senior government officials will no longer have to win Senate approval, allowing the president to put them in place as soon as he has made his selections. Supporters of the change said it would speed the formation of a new administration when a president takes office and allow the Senate to focus on positions of greater consequence.

The appointment and confirmation process has slowed considerably in modern times as more and more positions have been subjected to Senate scrutiny. The number of senior government posts requiring Senate confirmation has grown from 280 to 1,400 in the last half century, and the average confirmation time has increased to more than 10 months from two and a half months, according to No Labels, a bipartisan advocacy group that has urged reforms.

The new law, introduced last year by Senator Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, had the support of both the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, and the minority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. The Senate passed it last summer 79 to 20, with all the dissenters being Republican.

The proposal then lingered for more than a year in the Republican-controlled House as some conservatives expressed concern that Congress would be surrendering power to the executive branch. The better solution, critics said, was to streamline the Senate review process.

“Congress should not relinquish the Senate’s constitutional duty to consent unless it concludes that such a check is of no value because the office itself is of too little or no authority or consequence,” which was not the case with the positions listed in the bill, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research organization, argued on its Web site. “Lawmakers concerned about the pace of the nomination process should look inward.”

But when the House took up the measure on July 31, it drew bipartisan support, with some Republicans perhaps looking ahead to a possible Mitt Romney administration come January.

“There is little dispute that the current nominations process has grown too cumbersome and complicated, in some cases discouraging qualified individuals from seeking leadership positions,” Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, said on the House floor. On average, he said, just 35 of the 100 most critical positions were filled within the first 100 days of a new administration.

The House passed the bill 261 to 116. All but one of the nay votes came from Republicans.

The measure will not solve the long delays in the nomination process for most top positions, which remain subject to Senate votes. Even before nominations get to the Senate these days, they have typically been delayed by extensive and lengthy vetting by the administration itself, wary of past scandals that have torpedoed would-be senior officials. But the new law may help Cabinet secretaries and agency directors fill out their teams faster.

Many of the newly exempted positions are not for policymakers but assistant secretaries for public affairs, legislative affairs or management. Among the other positions now excluded are the director of the Selective Service, members of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, the chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the chief medical officer at the Department of Homeland Security, the director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the deputy administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration and the treasurer of the United States.

Also now freed of Senate approval are the appointment or promotions for 2,536 members of the Public Health Service and 319 members of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officer corps, which generally have been voted on as a block.


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