Partisanship Blamed For Slowdown In Political Appointments

Mar 10, 2017
Originally published on March 10, 2017 8:25 am
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The Securities and Exchange Commission currently has only two of its five commissioners, which means those two commissioners can't legally ride the same elevator together without filing a public notice under the U.S. Sunshine Act. That's just one example of a nomination process that, according to a new report, has just broken down. Charles Lane from member station WSHU reports.

CHARLES LANE, BYLINE: Next month, the Federal Reserve will be short three governors. Next week, the U.S. is sending its treasury secretary to the G-20 summit without any Senate-confirmed staff. Even obscure agencies are without top policymakers, like the Commodities Futures Trading Commission. They only make news when the credit markets freeze and the economy teeters on collapse, but still, more than half of their top posts have been vacant since 1986.

JUSTIN SCHARDIN: You're missing valuable perspectives and you're missing expertise.

LANE: Justin Schardin studies financial regulation at the Bipartisan Policy Center. He says it now takes three times longer for presidents to select financial watchdogs and five times longer for the Senate to approve them. He points to increased partisanship as the most likely culprit. That was supposed to change in 2014 when the Senate switched to a simple majority to confirm presidential appointment, but still the vacancies continue. And Schardin says the slowdown is not about creating a backdoor to deregulation.

SCHARDIN: It's a backdoor way to have nothing done, I suppose. I don't think it's so much deregulation because if - the people that are worried about overregulation right now, I think what they want is to get rid of some of those regulations. And that can't really happen with these vacancies.

LANE: The empty seats are most notable on the Federal Reserve Board, which not only writes rules for banks, it also determines what interest rates should be. According to Schardin's study, it now takes almost two years to fill a vacancy at the Fed. Lisa Cook is an economist at Michigan State University who served on the transition team for Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. She worries that politicians are increasingly trying to influence monetary policy through the appointment process rather than rely on experts.

LISA COOK: Then what you're saying is, we can't use expertise. And I think that that, for a very complex economy, is an awful thing. I mean, it's getting harder to understand. It's not getting easier.

LANE: Cook also sees another problem - banks and other financial entities using the appointment process to influence how closely they're regulated. For NPR News, I'm Charles Lane in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.