White House cites rigorous 'vetting process'


June 12, 1993|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Despite a flurry of important nominations late this week, the slow pace of President Clinton's appointments has angered Democratic constituencies, affected U.S. government policy and contributed to the perception that this president can't get it together.

Perhaps no case better illustrates the seeming disarray of the Clinton appointment process than yesterday's official nomination of Walter F. Mondale to be ambassador to Japan.

Word linking him with the ambassadorship to Japan dates back to March, but by not announcing it until yesterday, the president created the possibility that when he arrives in Tokyo next month for an economic summit, the U.S. ambassador to Japan will still be Bush administration hold-over Michael Armacost.

"It's embarrassing," said a former White House official during the administration of President Jimmy Carter. "Carter was supposed to be the one who didn't like to delegate. In the control-freak department, this guy makes Carter look like a piker."

Mr. Clinton also has taken three months to choose a Supreme Court nominee -- longer than any nomination for the court since the Civil War. Justice Byron R. White announced his retirement early in order to allow Mr. Clinton a leisurely search. No harm has been done, except perhaps in making Mr. Clinton appear indecisive.

White House officials dismiss such criticism, arguing that they have nearly kept pace with previous presidents, that the "vetting process" for new nominees has never been more rigorous and that, in any event, the main thing is to choose good people even if it takes a little longer.

Oval Office bottleneck

Even Mr. Clinton's critics concede there is merit in these arguments. On the other hand, even administration officials concede privately that there is a bottleneck in White House appointments -- and that it is located in the Oval Office.

The hang-up apparently is that the president wants to sign off personally on every appointment. Since there are some 3,000 federal patronage jobs, 625 of which require Senate confirmation, this can lead to chaos.

"There's a mom-and-pop quality to their hiring practices," observed Nelson Polsby, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley.

Countered Lorraine Voles, a White House spokeswoman: "The president has always said, 'Let's make sure it's done right,' not, 'Let's make sure it's done quickly.' "

Even though the Clinton administration's personnel office has been scrambling in the last two weeks to catch up, the White House's own records confirm that at this point in his administration, President Ronald Reagan had nominated 250 of the 625 appointees who need Senate confirmation, while President Clinton has nominated only 210.

The Clinton administration is running slightly ahead of President George Bush, although there wasn't the same urgency then because the Bush administration was of the same party as the Reagan administration.

James Pfiffner, a professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., has findings that Mr. Clinton trails Mr. Carter as well as Mr. Reagan.

The Carter comparison is particularly relevant because, as Democrats, both Mr. Carter and Mr. Clinton were more sensitive to the argument that their government appointments contain gender and racial diversity.

One factor that partially explains Mr. Clinton's tardiness is the Ethics in Government Act of 1978. The law's financial disclosure and other conflict-of-interest provisions have made it more difficult and time-consuming to recruit talent to government service than it was when Mr. Carter was making his appointments. The law did apply to Mr. Reagan.

In addition, the trend toward choosing all of these slots at the White House instead of letting the new Cabinet secretaries pick their own help has slowed things down, Mr. Pfiffner said. This practice was begun by Mr. Reagan, but the Reagan administration, unlike the Clinton administration, was prepared for the consequences of its decision. The Reaganites put a professional head-hunter, Pendleton James, in charge of recruiting, and gave him a staff of 100 during the transition.

The Clinton operation, by contrast, is smaller, and has been headed by Democratic operatives, not personnel professionals. Sometimes, that has backfired.

Holdover problems

In March, Defense Secretary Les Aspin sent a list of prospective appointees to the White House, only to have them rejected because they were all male. This was when Mr. Clinton's Pentagon was supposed to be studying possible military options in Bosnia. As a consequence of their demand for more women, the Clintonites ensured that much of that work was done by Bush administration holdovers.

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