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Rule change no longer shields Cabinet staff from losing their jobs

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By Ezra Klein
Friday, Nov. 22, 2013, 7:24 p.m.
 

One important effect of the change in the Senate rules: Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius now can be fired.

Also eligible for being fired: Marilyn Tavenner, director of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services; Attorney General Eric Holder; Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel; and Secretary of State John Kerry. Or really any political appointee.

That's not to say any of them will be fired. But the constant use of the filibuster against political appointments made it extraordinarily difficult for the White House to fire anyone because it didn't know whether it was able to appoint a replacement. Or if a replacement was made, who Republicans would accept. And the more political controversy there was around an issue, the more dangerous a personnel change became.

The scenario became a standard excuse for why no one is losing their job over the HealthCare.gov debacle: Firing any of the appointees in charge would just trigger a disastrous confirmation process that would leave the agency rudderless and chaotic for months — and possibly for the remainder of President Obama's term.

Simultaneously, the change in rules makes it far easier to hire new people.

The confirmation process was so difficult — and, because of that, the vetting process so intense — that top prospects routinely turned the offers down.

Christopher Hill, who served as ambassador to Iraq, described it vividly:

“Today, any nominee to a position requiring Senate confirmation can expect to spend many hours listing past places of residence; attaching tax returns; detailing family members' campaign contributions; and answering questions about the employment of domestic help or gardening services and whether such employees were legal, tax-paying U.S. residents. The vetting process will even go back to one's teenage years — all to ensure that anything that the Senate's own investigators can find is known before the nomination is formally submitted.”

After all that, the nominee often have would put their life on hold for months or years as the Senate worked through the obstruction — and, sometimes, the nomination would end in defeat.

Klein is a columnist at the Washington Post, focusing on domestic and economic policymaking.

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