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Presidential Appointees Are Fine--It's the Confirmation Process We Need to Fix

[Guest post by Jonathan Bernstein:]

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist. He blogs at A plain blog about politics.

Barack Obama cleared the logjam on appointments a bit with four recess appointments yesterday.  Jamelle Bouie thinks that the positions involved show that we have too many posts that presidents must fill (and the Senate must confirm).  I don't know what the optimal number of such positions might be, and I'm open to the possibility that it should be somewhat different -- but overall, executive branch appointments are an important weapon for the president, and one which shouldn't be taken from him.

Bouie asks: "Put another way, why exactly is the president of the United States responsible for providing ...Agriculture with an undersecretary for food safety"  Good question!  The answer is that food safety is, in fact, a partisan issue, with (as Monica Potts writes) a liberal agenda that differs considerably from the way things are now.  Change in what Richard Neustadt called a system of separated institutions sharing powers is difficult, and as Matt Yglesias writes today the Madisonian system has a bias in favor of the status quo.  That makes it hard to effect change by passing laws.  Moreover, all bureaucracies tend to favor the status quo, resisting change from either a liberal or a conservative direction.  Presidential appointments are one of the key methods (along with control of the budget) that bureaucracies can actually be made to respond, even if imperfectly and indirectly, to the wishes of the electorate.

Of course, because these choices also have to clear the Senate (except in the cases of recess appointments, of course), Congress gets to weigh in as well.  This can be problematic; it can help create iron triangles in which interest groups, Congressional committees or subcommittees, and agencies work together to freeze out any outside influence, including presidential influence (although for Congress, the budget is usually a more direct weapon).  But it's also a good thing; after all, it's likely that some of the relevant committee chairs have constituency groups who really care a lot about the policy, while often presidents will have little interest.

At it's best, the system will achieve input from national level interests (through the presidency), relevant local and narrow interests (through Congress), and expertise (through the bureaucracy).  Moreover, at its best, the incentives within the system will push everyone to compete for control of policy, which should -- by forcing people to defend their positions, and choose which things are worth fighting for -- yield better policy in the long run.  Or at least, that's James Madison's bet in Federalist 51, a bet which I at least would argue has served the nation well.  Obviously, there are plenty of times that things go badly awry.  The particular local interest that dominates may be only one of many narrow interests, but for some reason random or nefarious has far more political resources than others; the president may respond not to national interests, but to parochial ones important to his party's presidential nomination incentives (so that no presidential nominee is going to oppose corn-based fuels if he or she wants to win in Iowa); and the bureaucracy may be less interested in true scientific expertise than simply following standard operating procedures that evolved in the misty past for no good reason.  To me, the answer to to retain and fortify Madison's competition between elites, rather than to assume that any of these people or groups in most likely to be right most of the time.

Another way to look at it is simply as a question of how much democracy we really want.  Keep the bureaucracy at a remove from Congress and the presidency, trust in their administrative expertise, and you may (perhaps) have better policy, but you certainly are going to have less democratic control of what the government does.  Fully endorsing democracy means accepting the risk of people who you think are wrong or even completely irrational getting to control policy should they happen to win elections.  Exactly; that risk is an inherent part of true self-government.  What isn't self-government, at least in my view, is a bureaucracy that can't really be affected by the political system. 

So while I don't know, as I said, that we have the exact correct number of presidential appointments, in general I'm for a system in which the bureaucracy is relatively easily influenced by both Congress and the presidency, and one of the best ways to do that is to make sure that presidents get to put quite a few people in key executive branch posts, not just a few.  So the reforms I'd like to see -- less vetting of nominees by the president and the Senate, and simple majorities of the Senate to confirm nominations -- would make it easier to appoint hundreds of people.  In other words, I think the basic structure of presidential appointments is just fine, but the system of putting them in place needs some work.