How Not to Hire People for America's Most Vital Department


Before becoming a U.S. Senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan served in the Cabinet or sub-Cabinet of four consecutive Administrations, those of Presidents Kennedy through Ford. Asked recently if he had filled out an ethics form for any of those jobs, he smacked a spoon on the table to punctuate his reply: "None! Zero!" In fact, he could recall filling out nothing more complicated than an envelope-sized tax form. Puzzled, your humble correspondent asked how the ethics process worked back then. "If they didn't think my ethics were any good," replied Moynihan, "they wouldn't have asked me to do the job."

Imagine relying on reputation and experience to judge character! Giving appointees the benefit of the doubt! So very primitive; so coarse. Washington has evolved more-sophisticated methods. Indeed, Washington has evolved beyond sophistication to dysfunction. For evidence, you might speak with Stephen E. Herbits.

Herbits is a retired business executive who had a long career with Joseph E. Seagram & Sons Inc., and now lives in an airy Miami condo with glass doors that open to the sea breezes. He also, over the years, developed a specialty in Pentagon personnel. During the 1960s and 1970s, he worked in defense jobs both on Capitol Hill and at the Pentagon; in the Ford Administration, he worked as special assistant to then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Herbits became the recruiter of choice for incoming Republican Administrations that needed to find, in a hurry, people for the top-level Pentagon jobs that require Senate confirmation. In January 1981, working as a temporary, dollar-a-year consultant, he served as headhunter for Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger. Finding people for 41 or 42 jobs took him seven or eight weeks. In 1989, he provided the same service to the first President Bush's Defense Secretary, Dick Cheney; filling the jobs took, again, seven or eight weeks.

In January of this year, the phone rang. Could he come to Washington and help staff the younger President Bush's Pentagon, again under Rumsfeld's stewardship? Herbits expected to be in Washington seven or eight weeks. This time, filling 45 jobs took 15 weeks.

"When I started the process I was a mere 58," he told me, when I asked him his age. "I am now 72."

Well, 59, technically. I ought to say that Herbits is a personal friend of mine, and also that we are working together as officers of a nonprofit that we both helped to found. His instinct is to duck the press, but, at my prodding, he reflected in an interview last month on 25 years of Pentagon recruiting.

"There are lots of problems here," he said. "There may be problems with candidate preparation, with candidates themselves, with clearances. But there's one set of problems that needs to be surfaced a lot more, and that's Congress."

Wasn't Capitol Hill always a source of frustration for hard-charging Pentagon executives? Indeed, isn't that part of Congress's job? "Not nearly to the same degree," Herbits said. "People tell me that the Hill didn't like the Clintons when it came to defense, and so they decided to micromanage it. And once they got into it, they didn't want to leave."

Senators customarily send names of candidates for jobs to the President. The candidates are of two sorts: courtesy and serious. "When they send serious candidates, you appreciate it," Herbits said. "The problem is what happens when they want someone specific in a specific job."

Take the Republican Senator (sorry, no names allowed), a committee chairman, who wanted his own man named as the Pentagon's inspector general. "It's an important job, a sophisticated job," Herbits said. "The last person the Secretary would want is someone who is close to a Senator," because many of the IG's investigations are conducted at the behest of Capitol Hill and must be above any suspicion of favoritism or leaks. Nonetheless, as leverage, the Senator held up another Pentagon nomination. Persuading him to back down took a couple of months and a White House promise to investigate something or other.

"There were always holds on people because members of Congress wanted to lecture somebody," Herbits said. "We always needed to go through the dance of saying, 'Thank you, Senator, we appreciate your views.' That's traditional. This year, it got beyond that, in my mind. For the first time, to me, it was well beyond appropriate. What was different is how blatant it was and how frequent it was. 'The Senator won't confirm X until Y is hired'—it's that blatant. Threats to hold up a nomination to get whatever: Where that was once the rare exception, now it is commonplace. I know of one case specifically where two Senators sat down with representatives of the department and told them, 'You are building facilities split between our two states in the following way.' It was pure, unadulterated pork."

The two Senators eventually backed down, as usually such Senators do, but appeasing them took weeks. "When you're trying to staff a department, and national security's involved, whether someone's there in April or in June can make a big difference. Everybody slows up each piece of the process. And that's why you have people chosen in January and not getting in until May or June."

Then there are the courtesy candidates. "It's obvious that most of them are not remotely qualified," Herbits says. "It's widespread among members of Congress that they use this as a service for their constituents." Some may be important supporters; others, honchos in defense industries. "We have to treat these people with respect. I am perfectly happy to accommodate them, make sure they're given a serious look and walk away feeling they've been given a fair shot," Herbits says. "That's a hassle, and it's not normally a problem. But it becomes a problem when it becomes hundreds, and everyone expects to see top people." In the past, the number of courtesy candidates was, Herbits said, maybe two dozen. Now? Three or four hundred. Interviewing them, corresponding with them, and corresponding with their congressional patrons took much of the time of several dozen people.

Plus, Herbits says, congressional staff members want jobs, and their bosses want them to get jobs. "What's new is they've gotten bolder and they attack the building with leaks [if they are disappointed]. And, much more significantly, the staff is much more powerful than they were. Writing legislation is no longer a member's job, it's a staff job. If you turn them down, you turn them down at some risk."

And then there are the ethics rules. "I went after candidates who said, 'I simply won't put myself through this process.' Or, 'I can't sell everything I hold now.' " Because the Pentagon does business with practically everyone, there are thousands of corporations, says Herbits, whose stock must be divested by appointees. "It is more difficult to recruit top-flight people now than it was 12 years ago and 25 years ago," Herbits said, "in part because the ethical preventive constraints are so onerous, and in part because of the lack of dignity with which these people are treated. To have to list every place you've traveled over the past 15 years and the reason why—is that really important for a low-level position at the Pentagon, where it may not be relevant? In trying to make sure that everyone who comes in is a perfect human being when they get there, we're losing a lot of people who could serve well."

The costs are cumulative. Right through the spy-plane crisis with China in April, only two top Pentagon officials, the Secretary and deputy secretary, had been confirmed and were at work. "Because there were no confirmed appointees until May, there were three and a half months in government with only two people in the building," Herbits said. "If something comes along, like the China airplane, you just stop doing everything else. A huge number of other things don't get done. It takes five or six extra months to do a review of defense policy when you're the only person who's supervising it, because there's no one else around. And mistakes! And in a crisis situation, mistakes can cost lives."

According to the Brookings Institution's Presidential Appointee Initiative, the average time required for a new Administration to get its appointees named and confirmed has increased from about two months under President Kennedy to more than eight months under President Clinton. George W. Bush's Administration looks likely to break the record again. Almost an eighth of the way through Bush's term, his Administration was still more than three-fourths empty.

On May 18, an exhausted Herbits returned to Florida. In late June, when I spoke with him, three-fourths of the top Pentagon nominees were still unconfirmed. This is no way to run a railroad or a dog pound, but for the government's most critical department, it will have to do.