The Case Against Confirmation Hearings

The other day, Kevin Drum was upset about the tawdry joke that is the Senate confirmation process:

[H]ow about doing away with Senate confirmation entirely? It wastes tons of committee time, it promotes endless grandstanding by bloviating pols, it discourages all but the hardiest from working for the government, and — most important of all — it doesn’t actually seem to produce a better class of appointees, does it? Is the country really better off with a system that confirms Alberto Gonzales but deep sixes Tom Daschle? Has the White House staff, on average, been any less competent or less honest in recent years than the Senate-confirmed cabinet staff? Does the Senate, as Ackerman would like, really make it difficult for presidents to appoint underqualified officials?

The Senate would never agree to give up its precious consent privilege, of course, but I’m frankly not sure they add much to the process these days. In the meantime, allowing the president to have a White House staff of his choosing — whether I like his choices or not — seems more important than providing yet more cannon fodder for the greatest deliberative body in the world. They’ve got plenty to chew on already.

One solution to this could be to scrap the entire American system of government and move to a parliamentary system.

Barring that, I would say that this is another good reason to rely more heavily on career civil servants and less on subcabinet political appointees. The president could have a White House of his own choosing, not subject to confirmation. Then cabinet departments and major independent agencies could have their own appointed heads with the approval of the Senate. But for the “guts” of the work of implementing White House and/or Congressional mandates, doing analysis of what program changes would entail, etc. we would do well to expand the Senior Executive Service model and rely less on Assistant Secretaries brought in from the outside. That would make it a lot more viable to reduce the number of positions requiring Senate confirmation without freaking people out about abusive or corrupt staffing decisions.


As I’ve said before, a possible model for this is the State Department where by tradition, though not by law, an administration is supposed to fill most of the “political” appointments with career foreign service officers.

Of course another possible solution to this would be for senators to stop screwing around so much with appointments. I don’t see any real evidence that grandstanding about subcabinet appointments is crucial to one’s re-election prospects.