Washington’s Acting Roles

Debo exits, new actors enter.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Earlier this week, Debo Adegbile, President Obama’s choice to head the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, withdrew his name from consideration. He is not the first presidential nominee to do so: Adegbile joins 70 or so other would-be Obama appointees since 2009 to withdraw their names for jobs that require Senate confirmation. At least half were due to political pressures, estimates Ian Ostrander of Texas Tech University. That was the case for Adegbile. Despite excellent credentials, Republicans (and even some Democrats) found him controversial because he served as a defense lawyer for Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was on death row for killing a police officer in Philadelphia. The Senate first rejected Adegbile’s bid in March.

More than a thousand executive and judicial office positions are taken up by presidential appointments with approval from the Senate. But filling them has never been harder. Republicans are loath to approve presidential picks for even the minutest office. Alas, changing rules to curb the filibustering of executive nominations—the “nuclear option” Senate Democrats pushed through last autumn—has become a reason for partisans to double down on slowing approvals.

Nominations use to move to a vote by unanimous consent from the Senate chamber. Today, this happens more rarely: The Senate leader must now call what’s known as “cloture” to compel his colleagues to vote. A chart from Sarah Binder of the Brookings Institution shows the rise in clotures—so far this year, Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, has had to file 16 clotures a month, compared with seven a month in 2013. Many of these were simply to compel votes on nominations.

This has left agencies to be run by “acting” or temporary officials. That’s not entirely new; there was a quip during the second Clinton administration that Washington seemed to have more acting roles than Hollywood. But unprecedented levels of partisanship and obstructionism mean acting heads are likely to become the norm, says Robert Rizzi, a partner at Steptoe & Johnson, a Washington law firm.

Impermanence at the top is likely to leave an agency neutered, says Paul Light of New York University. Acting heads have the same legal authority of permanently installed ones, but their temporary status usually means that they will forestall making big decisions. Acting chiefs are limited to serving for 210 days, which makes it hard to have any long-term outlook. The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division is already on its second temporary agency head.

The Obama administration says it is working to find a new nominee to replace Adegbile. Whoever it turns out to be, he or she will likely face a long slog. The vetting process has lengthened, as have wait times for getting confirmed. (The Senate took an average of 60 days to confirm Obama executive appointees in 2009, compared with 49 days for Clinton’s in his first year, and 51 for Bush Sr.’s.) Even the paperwork is a bigger headache than it used to be. Security clearance questionnaires—first introduced amid the witch-hunting McCarthyism of the Eisenhower years—have lengthened to more than 100 pages. The only thing more frightening than a communist, it seems, is a fresh new bureaucrat.