Richard Reeves

Wacky Vetting in the U.S.A.

WASHINGTON -- A distinguished American I know, waiting to be confirmed for a high-level position in the Bush administration, expected his background check to take only a couple of weeks, maybe a few more than that, because this will be his third presidential appointment. No, he was told, it will take longer than usual because after the FBI checks him out again, they will have to go back to see whether there are any differences between what they find out this time and what they found out 10 years ago.

Who knows, maybe he joined the Communist Party since the last time agents scoured the country interviewing his fifth-grade classmates and Army buddies.

This is the scorecard so far, as compiled by the Brookings Institution Presidential Appointee Initiative:

President Bush has 487 positions to be filled by presidential nomination; 26 have been announced, formally nominated and confirmed in 11 weeks. Ninety-seven others have been announced. Thirty-four others have been announced and nominated. At this rate, 2.3 confirmations a week, the Bush administration will be up and running sometime in February 2004.

Actually, that date is a bit of an exaggeration. Judging by 1993 and 1997 nomination processes, the average waiting time for presidential appointees will be only 8 1/2 months. That number was calculated by the Century Foundation in New York, which like Brookings is telling us there is something wacky about the way we vet the men and women a president needs or wants to help him run the country.

Checking folks out has, in fact, become a job-protection program for FBI, IRS and INS agents, military intelligence officers and congressional staffers. The purpose of it all is to weed out communists -- when was the last time you met one? -- child molesters and worse. "Worse," as you may remember, is defined as political embarrassment. After all, a potential deputy assistant something or other may not be paying Social Security taxes for her dog-walker or may have an illegal immigrant pulling weeds in the garden. I use "her" because women have become the most common victims in these matters. Remember Zoe Baird? Linda Chavez?

And before the agents spread out across the country like locusts, the nominee has to fill out stacks of forms, which are different for each agency and job. There is not even a standard job application form. Among the lines to be filled out: Please list the birthplaces and dates of your mother-in-law and father-in-law. Please list each company, organization or individual from which or whom you received income of any sort during the past 10 years. Have you ever used drugs? Have you ever rented a film that could be called pornographic?

This, however, is not a story of bureaucrats running around in circles. Presidents get to be presidents by finding people who know the politics of the country better than they know the governing of it. President John F. Kennedy famously said after his election that he knew a lot of people who could help make him president, but almost no one who could help him be president. Nothing has changed. In fact, it has gotten much worse. In Kennedy's time, the average wait for confirmation was two months.

Then there is the U.S. Senate, where individual members have, use and abuse the power to put indefinite "holds" on nominees without giving any reason at all, or without revealing their own names. The rules of that great body protect the anonymity of the "holders," while the members are free to leak any pinch of dirt the FBI picks up on nominees -- and they do.

What to do? Brookings and Century generally agree: Reduce the number of presidential appointments by at least a third; reduce the number of appointees requiring Senate confirmation by at least that much; reduce the number requiring full FBI checks by even more; and require that Senate confirmation votes be held within 45 days of presidential nomination.

None of that is likely to happen. Vetting has become an industry here, at least for the vetters. The vetted, though, are the ones with the unemployment problem. One of the reasons that good and talented men and women refuse to consider government service at all is that if you give up your day job in a corporation or a university, you might end up with nothing to do and no income for a year or more while federal agents are checking out the receipts and wares at porn movie shops. Who needs it?

4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600

More like Richard Reeves