There is a growing sense among Republicans that George W. Bush has lost control of the political agenda. After an initial period of success with the tax bill, Bush now seems to be floundering. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, Democrat of South Dakota, appears to have the upper hand on many issues and is not shy about using it.
A big reason for this lull in the administration's initiative is its inability to fill key staff positions. While the White House itself is fully staffed, since very few positions there require Senate confirmation, the departments and agencies are still operating with skeleton crews.
This hurts the administration less in terms of day-to-day operations than by cutting off the flow of new ideas and initiatives. It also deprives it of salesmen for its policies. Since most of what government does is done by career bureaucrats, the essential role of political appointees is to develop new policies and promote those that the administration has already put forward.
Much of the daily work of an assistant secretary involves meetings to discuss responses to issues that have arisen within the department's responsibility, or interagency working groups to flesh out initiatives that may have originated at the White House or another department. The goal is to come up with legislation, executive orders or some other action that the president can ultimately take to advance his agenda.
The time lag for getting a proposal to where it is ripe for the president's attention is a long one. It may take many months for a memorandum to be drafted outlining some proposal. Then it must be vetted within one's own department before going to the White House. An interagency group may them be required to make sure that other interested parties have their say -- there are very few major proposals that do not involve the interests of other departments.
Eventually, there may be a Cabinet meeting to discuss the initiative. At this point, the political and legislative people may weigh in. It often turns out that there is some congressional obstacle to even the most benign legislation that must be worked out before an initiative can go forward. If there are budgetary implications to the initiative, it may have to wait until the budget cycle begins. Or it may be considered to be a candidate for inclusion on the State of the Union Address.
The point is that the gestation period for any presidential initiative is probably at least a year, and the clock cannot beginning running until the assistant secretary with original responsibility is appointed and confirmed by the Senate. Hence, the administration's failure to get many of these positions filled is going to make it increasingly difficult for it to press forward with its own initiatives.
There are many culprits for the staffing lag. The administration does not appear to have prioritized its appointments very well. It has been overly preoccupied with the racial and sexual makeup of its appointees. There have been struggles between Cabinet secretaries and the White House personnel office. The Senate has become a graveyard for some appointees, especially since Republicans lost control. And all of this, including the usual ethics and paperwork burdens, has undoubtedly made recruitment harder.
Thus there is plenty of blame to go around. Senate Democrats are no doubt aware that they are handicapping the administration by dragging their feet on confirmations. It will make it easier for them to claim in 2004 that Bush has done little during his term in office. And it also gives Democrats the opportunity to pay back Republicans for stalling the confirmation of Clinton appointees.
But the administration has also hurt itself by not getting up to speed quicker on appointments. For this, it blames the drawn-out election that severely curtailed the transition. But even taking this into account, the White House still seems to be moving unusually slowly in getting staffed-up. It has been suggested that some on the White House staff contributed to the delay in order to maximize their own influence, by eliminating potential competition in the departments and agencies.
In any event, the administration needs to break the logjam quickly. In a few short months, President Bush must prepare his first budget and put together his first State of the Union Address. These will likely shape much of the administration's activity leading up to the 2004 election. So it needs to do a good job in these areas, and that requires people on the job as soon as possible.
If all else fails, Bush may have little choice but to give recess appointments in August to many of those marking time in the Senate. The Senate won't like it, but under the circumstances he may not have any choice.