My three maddening, futile years inside the broken Senate confirmation process
Qualified candidates like me are pawns in a political game, and important posts go unfilled.
By Doug Wilson
Jan 6 2017
The 114th Congress ended this week, and with it went the confirmation chances of more than 80 qualified men and women nominated to government positions at all levels. On this Going Nowhere list are Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland and many others whose names had been put forward for less-exalted positions. I was one of them.
My concept of public service was framed by the civics of “Schoolhouse Rock”: A president nominates men and women who have particular skills and experience that qualify them to hold specific government positions. Backgrounds and references are checked, nominations are submitted, and the Senate consents or not to confirmation. The process is straightforward, civil, expeditious and based on merit.
Like so much else from the “Schoolhouse Rock” era, this concept is now laughably naive. Cabinet nominees get most of the focus as well as most of the flak, but those willing to offer themselves for consideration for lesser posts — there are 1,242 Senate-confirmed federal jobs, from marine mammal commissioner to Hospital Insurance Trust Fund trustee to Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board member — are increasingly hostages to a confirmation process run amok. To some extent, the problem is political: Appointments are one way senators can fight a president from the other party. But the problem is also bureaucratic: Overwhelmed and understaffed federal agencies are doing a very poor job vetting so many candidates in an efficient way. Many wait months and sometimes years for consideration, if they are ever considered at all. One Obama administration ambassadorial nominee diedmore than two years into the process, with her nomination still in limbo.
We don’t often hear from those whose nominations wither on the vine, even though there are more and more that do. It’s frustrating and humiliating, but you don’t want to be seen as a whiner or a loser. There’s always the possibility of a “next time,” and in any case, you are essentially powerless to do anything about the process. But a new cycle of nominations at all levels is about to begin, and some may want to know what the meat grinder is like from the point of view of the piece of meat.
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After the 2008 election, I was nominated and confirmed for the position of assistant secretary of defense for public affairs — the first openly gay individual to be confirmed for a senior position at the Pentagon. At that time, Democrats controlled Congress, and the process was relatively quick and painless, though it involved filling out many forms about my past activities. I concluded my Defense Department service in 2012.
Late the following year, a State Department appointee approached me regarding my potential interest in a Democratic vacancy on the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy , a small bipartisan board that, since 1948, has been charged with advising the administration and Congress on the effectiveness of U.S. public-diplomacy activities. As with other government commissions, its positions are uncompensated and part-time; they offer opportunities for qualified citizens to apply their talents for public benefit.
I expected things to unfold relatively smoothly. My previous confirmation process had been straightforward, I was not being nominated for a senior or controversial position, and it was an unpaid slot, designated for a Democrat. I had been thoroughly investigated only a few years back for the Pentagon job, and tradition called for my being paired with a Republican commission nominee for confirmation purposes.