Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Senate Confirmation & The Size of Government

There has been a lot of discussion in recent decades over the Senate's inability to get through the confirmation process for federal appointees. In spite of the fact that the Senate was designed to be a more deliberative branch of the legislature and less prone to quick decisions, both parties have complained about the process when they were in charge of the White House, and both have been guilty of foot-dragging to impede it when they could. An Associate Press story published in last weekend's in Kansas City Star spoke about a new bi-partisan effort on the part of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) to streamline this process as part of the changes that the Democratic majority is looking to make in the Senate rules. 

Reading the article however, I am convinced that the problem has nothing to do with the bi-partisan effort being proposed. Hidden in the fifth paragraph and only lightly touched on, it is in fact set before us in very plain language. There the story states: "Reid noted that they Senate was responsible for confirming 1,215 executive branch nominees and that number keeps rising". Passing over this rather astonishing number without comment, the story goes on in the same paragraph to cite a Brookings Institute study that points out that "the number of core policy positions the president must fill has risen from 295 when Ronald Reagan took office to 422 for Barack Obama"

Not referenced in the article, as it has nothing to do with the Senate effort, is that on top of the increase of those lined up before the Senate, there are over thirty executive branch positions, often known as 'Czars', who do not require confirmation before taking up their responsibilities. The application of simple mathematics to this growing group of bureaucratic drones shows us an increase in the executive branch counselors of 30% in the thirty years since Reagan took office in 1981. Add in the numbers for the requisite support staff that senior policy advisers and judicial appointees undoubtedly require to perform their authorized functions and multiply the resulting total by the average bureaucratic salary and benefit package in the federal government, and one cannot help but come to the conclusion that we are talking about several hundreds of millions of dollars (if not billions) each year. 

So setting aside the desire for rule changes in Senate committees, we might instead come to the conclusion that the problem with the confirmation process is not the political wrangling that seems to go on regardless of the party in power; but with the sheer magnitude of the list of positions that must be confirmed. Perhaps without even consciously knowing these numbers before, the problem that many Tea Party members and other Conservatives perceived with the federal government was not with the man sitting at its head (as is often accused), but instead with the number of paid sycophants that the holder of the office surrounds himself with.

Quite frankly, numbers on such a scale smack more of a royal court than that of an elected head of a representative republic. Since both parties have held the high chair in the last thirty years, both must share in the guilt for making it so. The growing layers of bureaucracy not only increase the cost of government at a time when we can ill afford it, but create in these fiefdoms unaccountable to the Electorate a ruling class that's the antithesis of the principles on which this country was founded. 

I have no out-of-hand objection to bi-partisan efforts on federal appointments of good candidates or to rules changes in the Senate to improve the appointment process. I would be pleased to discover however, that as part of any effort taken in the plan of Senators Reid and McConnell, they will likewise strive to reduce the number of appointees required to go through the process. I would be happier still to hear that this and future presidents will join this effort and say that they will expedite the process further by either eliminating such positions or failing to fill them. 

Very often the problems of government are difficult to see and almost impossible to resolve. In the case of the Senate confirmation process however the issue appears to be large enough to be easily identified (though I would hesitate to use the expression "elephant in the room" by way of description) and the solution equally simple to undertake.

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