March 11, 2009

Lawprof Bruce Ackerman says we should require Senate approval of senior White House staff positions.

"The challenge is to make it difficult for future presidents to appoint less-qualified officials -- such as Alberto Gonzales or Harriet Miers -- without serious outside review of their credentials. That, after all, is the aim of our system of checks and balances."

He'd like to see the reform set to begin in 2017, when, we can be sure, Obama will be gone, replaced by no one now knows who.

26 comments:

Bob said...

Sounds too much like the Tenure of Office Act, and would probably be found unconstitutional on similar grounds.

X said...

What was so unqualified about Harriett Miers? Unlike Ackerman, she has held real jobs.

Balfegor said...

I don't really object in principle, I guess. I can see why he wants it to be after Obama has left office, though -- if we imposed that kind of requirement in addition to the usual expectation that high government officials not be corrupt sleazebags, he'd leave office with half the senior offices of the executive branch still unfilled.

Bill said...

'Cause the process of filling the departmental staff positions that already need Senate approval is working so well? All those Treasury officials got vetted, had their hearings, and got voted on in the first few days of the administration...

The Drill SGT said...

The POTUS should be able in general to bring in any old clown for the "personal services" jobs, e.g WH Counsel, or CoS.

I have problems with a POTUS creatings Super Cabinet Secretaries (e.g. Czars)

For example:
On December 15, 2008, President-elect Barack Obama officially nominated Browner to the position of Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change, (Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy) and she will act as a coordinator for environmental, energy, climate, transport and related matters for the federal government.

anybody who gives direction to Cabinet Secretaries ought to be confirmed.

I think I feel that way about the NSA as well, but that job has always been classed as a personal services advisor.

MadisonMan said...

This is a great idea, because we all know that the truly smart and competent people in the Government -- the kind of people you need for oversight and for judging fitness of duty -- are in the Senate.

Original Mike said...

Given what has happened to the Senate approval process (i.e. how political it has become) this might be the absolute worst idea ever (well, maybe the worst of the last decade.)

Henry said...

Akerman has a point, but he also misses a point.

Both Bush and Obama have had a terrible time filling sub-cabinet positions and getting appointments confirmed. This makes major executive departments only semi-functional for months. This was an inconvenience for Bush. It's been a disaster for Obama.

White House staff fill the void, I suppose. Interestingly, Ackerman doesn't question the need for White House staff, just their lack of congressional approval. And he's right. It's not the 19th century anymore. The modern state is unmanageable from the Oval Office.

What I would suggest is some kind of compromise -- Cabinet and White House staff are reviewed; sub-cabinet positions are not.

Maybe Google could put together a "power and budget" algorithm that would tell Congress which positions need approval.

MadisonMan said...

Was my sarcasm evident? Just checking.

SteveR said...

MM: Yes

Richard Dolan said...

The WH staff grew to what it is today because the president (regardless of party) needs to ride herd on a semi-permanent bureaucracy that has no special loyalty to any particular administration or its policy goals, and often becomes the main raodblock to achieving those goals. Given its role, the president necessarily needs broad discretion in picking his WH staff.

Ackerman's piece is remarkable for the usual academic shtick about "credentials" and the sharp tone of hostility to Executive power. "Credentials" can be useful in filling some positions, but they're not a particularly useful measure of competence for high executive positions. And Ackerman's examples -- Gonzales or Miers -- prove then point, since they would have passed any credentials-based test even if, on the competence front, they were both less than overwhelming.

As for Ackerman's hostility to Executive power, even if one were to agree with that view, the idea of subjecting a president's choice of his personal staff to a senatorial veto is still a lousy idea. If the president is not given a free hand to staff his own personal office (what else is the WH?), then we've gone a long way towards ensuring bureaucratic supremacy within the (misnamed) Executive branch.

Simon said...

The Constitutionality of it is an interesting question -- Article II says nothing at all about the appointment of staff as opposed to officers; should the silence be construed inclusively or exclusively vis-a-vis positions for which Senate consent is required? -- but one that I think is amply settled by custom. Even if Congress has the power, they certainly lack the right.

I don't think the problem is with Senate hearings, per se, the problem is C-SPAN and the membership of the Senate. My objections to both direct election of Senators and live coverage of Congress have been rehashed passim ad nauseum, so I merely note them, and point to them as the real culprits rather than the confirmation hearings in abstracto, the villain of the piece in some comments above.

Joe said...

Why the belief that the senate is any more qualified to approve positions than the President?

Perhaps we should modify the constitution to require the White House approve Senatorial staff positions.

(And the president should tell Pelosi to fly commercial.)

Freeman Hunt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
bearbee said...

SENATE???!!!..... **voice shrill decibel level setting dogs to howling glass shattering***approval***eyes bulging veins popping***???!!!!!

paul a'barge said...

I'd like to require Senate approval for law professor positions so that we no longer get people in positions of authority like ... Bruce Ackerman.

Freeman Hunt said...

This is a great idea, because we all know that the truly smart and competent people in the Government -- the kind of people you need for oversight and for judging fitness of duty -- are in the Senate.

Ha. Exactly. Maybe it could be set up so that if the Senate says you're good to go, you're barred, and if the Senate says you're no good, you're in.

Skyler said...

You can force anyone into a job or a title that you want. The president will still talk to the people he wants to talk to.

FDR had his right hand man, Harry Hopkins, as a personal assistant. I don't even know if he was paid by the US. He turned out to be a Soviet spy, and tried to get uranium shipped to Russia during WWII.

So what would such a silly proposal do, when the president can still have enemy agents to confide in?

Simon said...

Incidentally, if Ackerman were in line for an appointment, I suspect his views on the process would change as fast as Elena Kagan's.

Joe said...
"And the president should tell Pelosi to fly commercial."

The President already has that authority, he's just not willing to use it.

Simon said...

Skyler, that's kind of my argument for why a Dick Cheney-style veep is helpful. The President will have a right hand man, whether a Harry Hopkins or a Cardinal Richelieu. At least when s/he's upfront about it, and makes that person his or her veep, the voters get to have some say in the matter.

jeff said...

Since when has the Senate started weeding out the people who are not competent? Is that something new? Can we put something similar together to weed out the incompetent in the House and Senate?

section9 said...

I notice that Ackerman has nothing to say about Rahm Emanuel, or Tim Geithner, for that matter.

2017, indeed!

David said...

Richard Dolan said...
The WH staff grew to what it is today because the president (regardless of party) needs to ride herd on a semi-permanent bureaucracy that has no special loyalty to any particular administration or its policy goals, and often becomes the main raodblock to achieving those goals. Given its role, the president necessarily needs broad discretion in picking his WH staff.


Exactly right. The Congress also has built up a gigantic retinue of staffers for their offices and committees. But these staffers know that they are beholden to the members (and to particular members) for their jobs. Would the Congress ever agree to a vetting process for their staff appointments? Actually I don't think Congressional employees are even covered by civil service protections, are they? I'll bet when check card legislation comes up, there will be an exemption for the U.S. Congress.

Ackerman is that most dangerous of types--reasonably intelligent with horrid judgment together with the urge to publicize himself.

Balfegor said...

Why the belief that the senate is any more qualified to approve positions than the President?

They're not. It's a checks and balances type of thing. The senators may not be any smarter than the President, but they have different incentives. If, say, the President wants to appoint his brother Attorney General, well, it's clear why the President has an incentive to engage in nepotism, but the senators have no particular reason to go along with it. They offer a slightly more disinterested perspective, and the partisan system gives opposition senators an incentive to push back hard on the more objectionable nominations.

jayne_cobb said...

Meh,

The only Ackerman you should pay attention to is President Ackerman

Seneca the Younger said...

And I'm starting my diet real soon now.