Obama picks create push to reform ambassador choices

A string of blunders by President Obama's ambassadorial picks and growing frustration from Republicans and the diplomatic corps are creating new momentum for reforming the long-standing U.S. practice of rewarding big donors with plum posts.

The custom has repeatedly been in the news over the past few weeks as Senate Republicans have used nomination hearings to highlight nominees’ shortcomings.

The public shaming comes after the minority was stripped of its ability to hold up nominees on the Senate floor last year, infuriating Republicans who lost their main tool for getting their questions and concerns addressed.

“It’s kind of entertaining and amusing how ignorant these people are, never having seen the country,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told Fox News on Thursday. “But it’s also really disturbing because it’s a disservice to our country to send that kind of unqualified candidate to represent us and our interest there in these countries.”

McCain has been leading the charge, with his interrogation of Obama's nominees to Norway and Hungary last month going viral after the candidates – both bundlers to Obama's re-election campaign – failed to answer basic questions about their postings.

Nominees to serve in Iceland and Argentina also raised eyebrows when they acknowledged they'd never visited the countries where they'll be posted, although the State Department argues that's not indicative of how they'll perform. And even Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) stumbled during his confirmation hearing when he inartfully said he was “no real expert on China.”

The State Department agues that political appointees – such as the recently deceased Shirley Temple, President Reagan's choice for envoy to Czechoslovakia – have made some of the best ambassadors.

“We've had great career ambassadors and great political ambassadors,” Secretary of State John Kerry's chief of staff, David Wade, said in a statement. “I'd hate to see them disqualified because heaven forbid they had a political affiliation, and I haven't met a foreign service officer who disagreed. The question is the individual not where they come from, period.”

The Republican push has coincided with a surge in political appointments under Obama, who campaigned in 2008 on a platform of breaking with the Washington practice of rewarding friends and donors. Some 37 percent of the president's appointment have gone to political appointees instead of career foreign service officials since 2009, according to the American Foreign Service Association that represents career diplomats – about the same ratio as Reagan but many more than the 27 percent under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

To mitigate the practice, the association has tapped 10 former ambassadors – both career professionals and political appointees who have served every president since Nixon – to write new guidelines for nominations. The guidelines, in the works since last summer, are currently being floated with the White House, State Department and Congress and are scheduled to be made public on February 25.

Kristen Fernekes, a spokeswoman for the association, said the goal is for all the parties involved to adopt the guidelines so they'll all be working from the same playbook with future nominees. She said the group's push was totally nonpartisan and had been in the works long before McCain began railing Obama's nominees, but acknowledged the public interest could help with the effort to set new standards.

“Yes, the stars are aligning, but this is not because of that,” she told The Hill. “It's much in the news and we believe this is an opportunity for people to look at this.”