How reform can minimize politics in presidential appointments

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This analysis by the editor and co-founder of Current describes methods used elsewhere to reduce the influence of political favor in naming boards.

If patronage appointments are giving CPB a mediocre Board of Directors and top management, as retired longtime staffer David Stewart contends in the accompanying commentary, there’s a simple reform that’s widely used in such situations.

That is: inserting a nominating step in the process, a reform that brings to bear the attention and efforts of additional interests and reduces the now-predominant role of partisan considerations.

That’s how people are named to the board that runs the National Science Foundation. That’s how most regents of the Smithsonian Institution are chosen. On the state level, that’s how the Commonwealth of Kentucky picks the board that oversees Kentucky Educational Television, as well as state university boards.

And that was also the method recommended in the late 1970s by the second Carnegie Commission for naming trustees of the organization that it proposed to replace CPB.

Each of these nominating processes works somewhat differently, and nobody claims they automatically result in terrific appointments, but they improve the odds.

Even if all CPB Board appointees had sharper minds than tongues (not always the case) and were full of inspired ideas for CPB’s future (seldom the case), the board’s credibility still would be stained by the obvious partisan origins of most appointments. (The same could be said about many governmental appointments.)

Without considering personal merits and demerits, it’s easy to notice that the CPB Board recently has included:

  • two wives of Cabinet members,
  • three former Administration public relations spokespersons,
  • two former members of Sen. John Tower’s staff and one of Sen. Slade Gorton’s, and
  • at least one personal friend, one business colleague, and one major campaign contributor of one president or another.

What a narrow slice of American life to draw from! No wonder, as David Stewart observes, the board has been “almost exclusively preoccupied by process and politics … that is what they know best.”

This defines and limits the CPB Board at a time when public broadcasting needs inspired leadership — from somewhere. Maybe CPB will never be the place to look. As its own leaders complain, it has limited discretion in the ways it spends its appropriation. But does this narrowness limit the quality of people attracted to its board, or does the board’s quality put blinders on its eyes?

There are good reasons to have board members with political connections and expertise, of course. It helped to have President Nixon’s cronies on the board to get CPB rolling again after the nearly fatal showdown with him in 1971-72, says Michael Hobbs, a longtime observer of the field who was secretary to the PBS Board through many tempestuous years.

And resumes don’t dictate who will be a good board member. No one would be prepared by experience to handle exactly the challenges of the job, says CPB Board Chairman Alan Sagner. “When I look at the [appointment] method now, and who has served on the board, I think we’ve been pretty lucky,” he says.

Good board members and chairmen like Sharon Percy Rockefeller, with her top-drawer bipartisan political connections, sometimes take you by surprise, observes Calvin Mackenzie, a Colby College political scientist who studied federal appointments for a recent Twentieth Century Fund study. “I don’t think anyone appointed her because she was the woman to turn around public broadcasting. Sometimes you get caught off guard and someone takes the job seriously.”

The quality of board appointments is bound to suffer, however, because quality is beside the point. Appointments to CPB and hundreds of other federal jobs are not selected with care by the President to find the best available individuals, but by a patronage machine.

Choices are made, says Hobbs, by “a small corner of a huge personnel operation in the White House, where the initial qualification is not distinction in some field relevant to public broadcasting, or commitment to it, but political appropriateness. That’s handicapping the process from the start.”

The process begins when a campaign donor asks for a job, says Hobbs. “The donor says he’d like an FCC seat, and the third junior assistant for personnel in the White House calls back and says the President would love to appoint you to the FCC, but he has asked me to tell you that the country needs you for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.”

Mackenzie recalls: “I have never encountered anyone who worked on political appointments in the White House who said to me, ‘We really went out of our way to bring great talent and distinction to these part-time boards.'”

“Presidents have two major recruitment problems,” he explains. “They are overwhelmed with people who want to serve in the Administration … and on the other hand are underwhelmed by truly talented people willing to take political appointments.”

“You recruit hard for the ones that matter, like the assistant secretary of state for Latin America,” says Mackenzie. “Then you take the ones you don’t really want in an important position, and — if they can pass the smell test — they end up on the board of CPB or the American Battle Monuments Commission.” In that patronage backwater, he adds, a CPB Board appointment is actually one of the more attractive plums.

What Carnegie II proposed

What are the alternatives to patronage? Boards of private-sector organizations tend to elect their own new members, but that semi-closed method may be inappropriate for any organization with “public” in its title.

Still, a board can benefit from appointing some of its own seats. The board members themselves would tend to care about the quality of their colleagues, and their choices could bring diversity to a board that was otherwise chosen by the White House personnel machine.

Congress itself considered moderating the direct political influence on the CPB Board three decades ago. An early draft of the law that created CPB, the Public Broadcasting Act — approved by the Senate Commerce Committee in May 1967 — would have had the CPB Board itself appoint six of its 15 members, according to longtime public TV lobbyist Chuck Marquis. That idea vanished in conference with the House, however.

Appointment power for a board also can be divided among varied officials, though Mackenzie observes that it would diffuse responsibility and lower the pressure for good appointments.

Probably the most common answer to the patronage problem is a simple and seemingly mild reform: having somebody make nominations from which the chief executive can choose.

The second Carnegie Commission advised this approach in designing a new Public Telecommunications Trust that it proposed unsuccessfully as CPB’s replacement. (CPB “continues to operate with low effectiveness and credibility in the programming and leadership spheres,” the report said.)

The President would appoint nine trustees to nine-year terms, meaning that the White House would have to appoint just one a year.

The nominations, which the President could accept or not, would come from a special panel of eminent officials with great connections to various worlds:

  • the librarian of Congress, who serves as chairman,
  • the director of the National Science Foundation,
  • the chairs of the National Endowment for the Arts and its humanities counterpart,
  • the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, and
  • a rep from public TV and one from public radio.

The first time around, these would be joined by the Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate.

This nominating panel, it was noted, includes direct appointees of both the White House and Congress as well as people who are chosen otherwise.

How NSF and the Smithsonian do it

Different nominating mechanisms are used at the National Science Foundation and the Smithsonian Institution — both federally funded bodies that, like CPB, have intellectual missions and the need for independence.

Members of the NSF’s governing body, the 24-member National Science Board, are picked on the basis of their eminence in science and engineering. Two such members, for example, are the president emeritus of AT&T Bell Labs and the engineering dean of Georgia Tech.

Every other year, the board seeks suggestions for new members from interested parties, including the various scientific and engineering societies. The board’s chairman appoints an ad hoc committee, which reviews some 200 nominations and forwards 35 to 40 names to the White House. The President appoints six.

The Smithsonian’s charter, dating back to 1846, yields a highly political board, with six present members of Congress, plus the Vice President and the Chief Justice among its 17 regents. Two retired members of Congress also are among the nine citizen members.

But the Smithsonian, probably for the institution’s self-protection, long ago established a way of nominating those citizen members: They are picked by a nominating committee of the board and put forth by the board itself. Congress elects them by joint resolution, and rarely rejects a nominee, according to James M. Hobbins, an aide to the secretary of the Smithsonian.

The regents are chosen to meet needs for expertise, Hobbins says. Present members include the chairman of IBM and the director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Despite their high ranks, 14 of the 17 regents typically come to meetings, Robbins notes.

When a governor appoints himself

In Kentucky, nominations probably wouldn’t have become part of the procedure at the state public TV network and the state universities if Gov. Wallace Wilkinson hadn’t created a hullabaloo by appointing himself to the University of Kentucky board just before leaving office in 1991.

Under legislation passed shortly thereafter, the governor still makes the appointments, but must choose among the three nominees for each seat put forth by a special Higher Education Nominating Committee. Though the Wilkinson incident involved a state university board, the legislation was expanded to cover the Kentucky Authority for Educational Television as well.

The governor appoints the seven-member nominating committee, with one member from each state supreme court district, after seeking recommendations from various education, civic and business groups. And, in case anyone forgets, the legislation won’t let governors appoint themselves to boards.

How has the new process changed appointments? The universities are probably getting some board appointees who are “more objective about things,” says Dick Wilson, longtime reporter for the Louisville Courier-Journal, but he hasn’t seen “much difference” in the composition of boards since the legislation took effect.

When most of the board members were the governor’s cronies, the universities didn’t hire bad presidents, Wilson says. “They got some very good ones.” And Gov. Wilkinson turned out to be a lively board member at UK, raising hell until he was forced off the board.

Robert Sexton, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, believes the change of process has had a subtle effect, raising the level of interest in serving on the boards by “several notches.”

It has let Kentuckians know that the nomination process is open and not a governor’s-office fix they have no hope of influencing, says Sexton, whose watchdog group had sought the reform for years.

Instead, nominations have brought in some “strong board members who might not have been appointed otherwise,” who made their mark outside of state politics, Sexton says. “They have a genuine interest in serving higher education that goes beyond the honor and beyond getting basketball tickets.”

“Perhaps most important, it has eliminated the most egregious and inappropriate appointments.”

There’s less overt patronage on the university boards, confirms Holly Stepp, higher education reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader, which analyzed recent appointments. But a few supporters of the governor are still getting appointed, the newspaper found.

“Don’t think that when you have a nominating process that a governor can’t … ask people to send resumes in,” observes Wilson.

Other states have less formal nomination systems. The executive committee of Ohio’s Educational Broadcasting Network Commission, for instance, solicits suggestions from the stations, gives a slate to the governor and “in most cases, they are acted on favorably,” says Dave Fornshell, director of the commission for 27 years.

Sometimes political connections are exactly what the commission itself wants in an appointment, Fornshell says, but other times it’s looking for expertise in education or technology. “You wouldn’t want nothing but people with strong political ties, because you need that mix of expertise.”

Perhaps so, but people who run in political circles are the people who run government, and they tend to hang onto their prerogatives.

The present system of appointing CPB Board members isn’t ideal, but it’s “political reality,” Sharon Rockefeller said in an interview last fall.

“I don’t think the President, whichever President it is, wants to give up the right to appoint, and the Senate does not want to give up the right to confirm. As much as we may want to change that procedure, the chance of it actually happening is pretty small.”

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