At least one person, former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, looks set to benefit from the outbreak of deadly swine flu in Mexico. The Senate Republican minority had, for weeks, successfully delayed her confirmation as secretary of Health and Human Services for the not-very-good reason that she, like the president and the majority of Americans, is pro-choice. Their view was always absurd, but it was only with the outbreak of a major continent-wide public-health emergency that it became untenable and they allowed a vote, and thus her inevitable confirmation, to go forward.
Unfortunately, the sudden flip on Sebelius doesn't change the fact that Heath and Human Services still lacks a deputy secretary. And an assistant secretary for resources and technology. And assistant secretaries for preparedness and response, planning and evaluation, public affairs, public health and science, legislation, and children and families. Nor do we have a surgeon general. Or an FDA commissioner or a director for the Indian Health Services. Or a general counsel. And that's not even an exhaustive list of the still-vacant HHS political appointments.
The main political impact of the Republicans’ appointee slowdown seems to have been to help boost the general impression of the Republican Party as increasingly extreme; the sort of thing that helped push Sen. Arlen Specter out of the GOP and into the arms of the Democrats.
In part, the moral of the story is that the Republican obstructionists ought to be ashamed of themselves.
Ever since embarrassing revelations emerged about problems with the tax forms of some of Barack Obama's appointees, the Senate Republicans have decided to slow the entire confirmation process down to a crawl. The upshot of this is some minor inconvenience for Obama, but with his approval ratings lodged firmly in the mid-60s, it can hardly be said to be dealing a crippling political blow to his administration. Instead, the main political impact seems to have been to help boost the general impression of the Republican Party as increasingly extreme; the sort of thing that helped push Sen. Arlen Specter out of the GOP and into the arms of the Democrats.
The harm to the country and to the world is real enough. Amid a serious economic crisis, Congress has still not confirmed Obama's appointees for several key Treasury posts. To be sure, not-yet-confirmed appointees have some capacity to do their jobs on an unofficial basis. But they lack legal authority, and are unable to represent the administration in dealings with foreign governments, state governments, members of Congress, or business leaders. This is a real handicap to the government's ability to conduct important business. And as the unexpected swine-flu outbreak shows, even agencies like HHS, which don't immediately strike you as mission-critical, can suddenly turn vital.
But while slamming an increasingly irresponsible ideological minority for obstructionism has a certain appeal, the reality is that you can't take the politics out of politics and increasingly brutal confirmation battles have been a bipartisan downward spiral for years now.
A big part of the problem is that the U.S. simply has an outrageously large number of political appointees running the executive branch. Most democracies operate more the way we run our military, with the vast majority of senior administrative posts in the hands of career professionals. Overall policy direction is set by a relative handful of politicians and political appointees, who have some discretion over which career people fill which slots. Our State Department operates under a somewhat similar informal tradition, whereby most ambassadorships with important policy implications (to Iraq, for example) go to career foreign service officers, as do many assistant secretary slots and the job of undersecretary for political affairs.
The fact that it's the national-security branches of the government that are run this way should be suggestive, as this is the portion of the government where there's traditionally the greatest commitment to efficacy. And, indeed, research by David E. Lewis, of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School, has found that on the civilian side the minority of federal programs that are administered by career civil servants are better managed than the majority of programs that are run by political appointees. Follow-up work by Lewis and University of Wisconsin political scientist Donald Moynihan confirmed this in a telling way. Using the Bush administration's Program Assessment Rating Tool administered by the Office of Management and Budget, they compared the PART ratings of over 600 government programs with the backgrounds of the program's 242 managers. The political appointees turned out to have more educational credentials than the career people, but the civil servant-managed programs scored better in terms of strategic planning, program design, financial oversight, and results.
The problem of ineffective political appointees, in other words, goes beyond the infamous case of FEMA's Michael Brown, a failed horse breeder who claimed a law degree from an unaccredited school. Even political appointees with reasonably appealing résumés simply don't do as good a job as career people who have the institutional knowledge necessary to be effective public-sector managers.
As a bonus, political gamesmanship around appointments would take place in a lower-stakes context. There's not, at the end of the day, a Democratic or a Republican way to respond to flu outbreak. And there's no reason the endless political debate over abortion should stop us from having an assistant secretary for preparedness and response to help deal with it. If the use of political appointees in this sort of role had clear benefits in terms of delivering better government, then delayed confirmations would be a small price to pay. But the evidence suggests the reverse—overreliance on political appointees leads to dangerously high vacancy rates, and not-so-great management even when the positions are filled. Reform of the bureaucracy isn't the sexiest issue in the world, but if Obama ever manages to finish getting his appointees confirmed, something he might want to tackle next is making sure his successors don't need to make so many of them.
Matthew Yglesias is a fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. He is the author of Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats.