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Experts: Senate rule changes on executive confirmations boosts struggling agencies

Dec. 14, 2013 - 11:08AM   |  
By ANDY MEDICI   |   Comments

Recent changes to Senate filibuster rules could mean faster confirmations of executive appointees and a better functioning government, experts say.

On Nov. 21 the Senate removed the 60-vote threshold to overcome filibusters on executive branch and judicial nominees. Now only a simple majority is required.

The rule change could mean faster appointments of agency executives, leading to more efficient and effective agency operations, said Robert Tobias, director of the Key Executive Leadership Programs at American University.

He said having political appointees in place helps accountability for successes and failures.

“When those positions are not filled its easy for a president to blame the other party for not having the positions filled,” Tobias said.

But he said internal reform efforts and other changes are best led by political appointees who draw their authority from a presidential nomination and subsequent Senate confirmation.

The rule change will also allow President Obama to remove underperforming appointees and replace them with more qualified people, Tobias said, instead of leaving an underperformer in the job because a filibuster would stall a replacement’s confirmation.

“Is it better to have a slightly incompetent person or no one at all?” Tobias said. “Now that is less of a problem.”

Agencies such as the IRS and the Department of Homeland Security have been struggling in the absence of appointed executives, he said.

“How can you possibly lead so complex an agency that needs to be responsive to changes in its operating environment without the right leadership?” Tobias said. “It’s asking the impossible.”

Tha case of Stephen Warren at the Veterans Affairs Department highlights the turmoil created by a lengthy confirmation process.

Warren was appointed acting chief information officer at the VA on March 9, but could not serve longer than 210 days without Senate confirmation. So in early October, he was reappointed as the executive in charge of the agency’s Office of Information Technology — with the same basic responsibilities as when he was acting CIO.

John Palguta, the vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service, said any changes to help qualified people move into leadership positions in a more timely manner will help agencies function better.

“Having those positions vacant for an extended period — as is frequently the case now — does not help at all in terms of mission accomplishment,” he said. ■

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