Wednesday, November 12, 2008

An Immoderate Proposal

Nothing is more ludicrous to observe nor more pitiable
to hear than the gait and the quack of the proverbial lame
duck.

A mere eight days ago voters in the United States elected Illinois Senator Barack Obama to be the nation’s 44th president. He assumes that title and responsibility on January 20th, 2009 at 12:00 pm when, as specified in the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, he takes the oath of office.

In this interval of approximately 90 days, a new president normally would select and announce members of the incoming White House staff not previously identified, secretaries and other senior members of the various departments that constitute the president’s cabinet, and the heads of the various federal regulatory agencies created by Congress. In the normal course of the calendar, once named the individuals would fill out financial disclosure statements and provide other information required under ethics legislation and the intelligence agencies would conduct background checks for security clearances. Then in early January, the new Congress would reconvene and the Senate would begin confirmation hearings on the nominees designated by the president-elect even though the outgoing president remains in power until noon on January 20th.

Well, no one needs to tell the American public that this transition from George W. Bush to Barack Obama is “normal.” As President Bush himself noted, this will be the first transition of presidential power to occur while the nation is at war since 1968 when Richard Nixon succeeded Lyndon Johnson. Moreover, since September of this year, the U.S. economic picture has suddenly dimmed – and dimmed considerably – as measured across a wide array of indicators.

- The housing and mortgage markets are in disarray and are being buoyed by the U.S. Treasury.

- Wall Street firms that took on high risk obligations have failed or have had to seek “bailouts” from the Treasury to keep their doors open. Only in the last two weeks have credit markets started to operate again – again because of massive Treasury Department intervention.

- Financial experts now are resigned to a lengthy and deep recession. Consumer spending, which had powered the economy of the last decade, has slowed, which in turn has cut corporate earnings. In turn, the economy has been shedding jobs at an enormous pace – 1.2 million over the last ten months. Public opinion surveys confirm that the country has fallen into an uncharacteristically negative psychological state that used to be called a “funk” – defined as a severe state of depression or panic.

And then there are the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. More foreign troops – including U.S. soldiers, and dying every month than are dying in Iraq. But Iraqis are still dying in car bombings, suicide bombings (31 on November 10th), and roadside improvised explosive devices.

The current administration seems to have “frozen” over what to do next in Iraq and Afghanistan. During the just completed presidential campaign, Senator Obama proposed changes in the Bush policy – specifically beginning to pull U.S. forces out of Iraq and reinforce – along with NATO allies, the troops now in Afghanistan. This certainly is not an optimum or even a preferred alternative, but without restoring a sense of security among the majority of the Afghan population, it will become increasing impossible for the provincial reconstruction and development teams to make any headway in helping Afghanistan rebuild itself.

Given the time needed to implement remedial programs for the economy or to end the wars, to allow the normal lame duck political drift would be unconscionable. Why not borrow a current practice – confirmation hearings by the new Senate in January while the outgoing president is still in office – and have the outgoing Senate start the process in December with confirmation hearings on the most important positions (e.g., State, Defense, Justice, Treasury, Homeland Security ) in the new administration. With more (or all) of these positions voted on either by the old or the new Senate committees, the way would be clear for President Obama to formally send the nominations to the new full Senate immediately after he takes the oath of office and have that body vote up or down before the inauguration day parties begin.

As far as I can determine, there is no Constitutional barrier to the outgoing Senate to hold hearings on the nominees for the new administration. If the outgoing Congress can legislate on other matters, surely in times of dire need it can at least hold all committee hearings and take all votes up to the final one confirming key members of the new administration.

Having these confirmed and ready to go before the full Senate on January 20th would provide much needed momentum for the incoming Obama team. The nation doesn’t have the time for “business as usual” Nor does the rest of the world.

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