Yesterday, President Obama made four recess appointments to vacancies in the Department of Agriculture, the Small Business Administration, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the State Department. There isn't anything "special" about these appointments, but they're worth noting, since they illustrate the ridiculousness of our system for staffing the executive branch.
Put another way, why exactly is the president of the United States responsible for providing HHS with an assistant secretary for public affairs, or Agriculture with an undersecretary for food safety? Unlike agency heads and their immediate subordinates, these are fairly low-profile positions that fall largely outside the public's radar. Assuming there are able administrators within the respective agencies, there isn't any particular reason for why they are held by political appointees rather than career civil servants.
To borrow an analogy, imagine if -- on her first day -- the president of a major university was responsible for filling every vacant deanship, vice presidency, and department chair. We would shake our heads at the absurdity of it. But that -- and more -- is exactly what the president faces. Simply put, the President of the United States faces a set of personnel burdens that are without parallel in any other major institution of American life. And this isn't actually by design; the modern-day appointment process is a piecemeal construction of laws, norms, and ad hoc measures. There isn't any principled reason for why 1,125 executive-branch positions require Senate confirmation; it just kind of happened. And I'm sure that if we were to design a system from scratch, the president wouldn't be responsible for filling thousands of positions.
In his statement announcing the recess appointments, President Obama argued that this step was necessary given GOP obstructionism, "At a time when our nation faces so many pressing challenges, I urge members of the Senate to stop playing politics with our highly qualified nominees and fulfill their responsibilities of advice and consent. ... Until they do, I reserve the right to act within my authority to do what is best for the American people." I won't hesitate to blame GOP obstructionism when it's deserved, but I'm not sure if it's entirely deserved in this case, or many others. Yes, it's ridiculous that these nominees waited an average of 303 days for Senate confirmation (which, these days, is par for the course), but how much of that is GOP obstructionism, and how much of that is the sheer volume of nominees? With its hyper-partisanship, arcane rules, and regular gridlock, the modern-day Senate simply isn't equipped to handle 1,000-plus executive-branch nominees.
For now, I think, regular and frequent recess appointments are the ideal path for the president. But ultimately, we should give serious thought to reforming the presidential appointment process; it's terrible for the nominees, too much for the Senate, and for the president, makes governing the country that much more difficult.
-- Jamelle Bouie
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