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America has too many political appointees
Whats the sense of having 1,300 Senate-approved appointments if the Senate won't bother to approve them?
Does the following sound like a good way to run an organization? It takes over a year to find senior executives, four months for them to be approved, and then they leave within two years, starting the search process all over again. The top jobs are vacant about one quarter of the time. Oh, and the executives often lack relevant experience for the job.
But this is exactly the ways in which America manages its government, resulting in gaps in key leadership positions and lower performance.
If you live in America you might be vaguely aware that the US relies on political appointees to lead our public organizations. But how much do you know about it really? Do you know how unusual the system is compared to other countries, how much more dysfunctional the process has become, and how Republicans are planning to make it worse?
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Unless you are very much in the weeds, the answer is you probably “no”. And as long as the system works — albeit imperfectly — why ponder such issues? But increasingly the system doesn’t work. Senator Tommy Tuberville’s blocking of military officers has helped shine a spotlight on this dysfunction, but its really just a small part of a larger problem. And rather than fix it, Republicans wants to massively increase the politicization of our public services. Even as we pay more and more attention to the pace of lifetime judicial appointments, we are losing sight of other types of appointments which remain critical for the US system of governance.
More appointees = worse performance
The US is an outlier in terms of its existing level of politicization. We use about 4,000 political appointees to run the executive branch. Up to the top five layers of leadership in a department or agency can be appointees, a sharp contrast with most peer countries where only the top layer is political.1
The reliance on appointees is, according to the best evidence, undermining government performance. A recent systemic review of empirical research on the use of merit-based processes concluded that “factors such as meritocratic appointments/recruitment, tenure protection, impartiality, and professionalism are strongly associated with higher government performance and lower corruption.”
Evidence from the US federal government shows that political appointees are associated with lower program performance.
Why do political appointees perform less well?
David Lewis, a Professor at Vanderbilt who has done the most compelling research on American political appointments. He points to the rushed selection process and reliance on patronage:
One cannot carefully search for all of these executive positions in a short period of time. Executive search firms spend months searching for c-suite executives. We [the federal government] do this thousands of times over in a very short period of time. This means that the persons selected are not always a good fit. Throw into this mix the fact that politics and patronage govern selection and you can get some poor managers in key positions regularly.
Research by Lewis and colleagues found that it took recent Presidents an average of over a year to nominate an appointee. This average length of time to nominate grew from 384 to 466 days between the George W. Bush and Trump administrations. Lewis also has documented that appointees with less government experience and more campaign/party qualifications tend to be associated with poorer program performance. Governing is different from running a campaign, but being connected with the party or campaign is a key stepping stone to landing an appointee job in government.
Sometimes its not about the appointees, who are often outstanding individuals, but the fact that they typically spend only 18-24 months in the job on average. So they rarely gain enough experience to truly understand the organizations they are running, and how to implement the policies they are tasked with overseeing. They are more likely to look for quick, visible policy wins than managing the complexity of policy implementation or the long-term health of the organization. Research by Lewis shows that Presidents exacerbate this tendency. In domains that are more important to them, they prioritize appointments in policy positions rather than management positions.
Politicizing the workplace, research shows, also undermines incentives for career bureaucrats to stick around and put more effort into their job. According to Lewis:
Creeping penetration of appointees makes it hard to recruit and retain top people. Bright employees recognize that they cannot get the top jobs in pay and responsibility. They are all going to political appointees. They choose to leave for work that provides them these things or they do not come in the first place. It is not just that leadership quality declines, the quality of the whole service declines.
But maybe this is worth it if we believe that a government system dominated by short-timers provides greater responsiveness to the public. It is increasingly hard to make this claim. There is evidence that appointees are actually less responsive to the public and stakeholders. And the entire system feels increasingly dysfunctional.
As the appointment system has grown, the public sector became more politicized and sclerotic
The problem of Senate appointments has become particularly clear. Of the four thousand or so appointees, 1,339 require confirmation by the Senate. This is 72% increase in the number of Senate-confirmed appointments since 1960, which was 779, even as the population of career officials has stayed basically static.
This is simply too many Every Senate appointment requires extra preparation, background checks, and delay. It also takes about twice as long for appointees to be confirmed relative to the past, going from 56 days in the Reagan administration, to 112 days in the Obama administration and 117 days in the Trump administration, to 127 days for the Biden administration.
The Senate is taking twice as long to confirm twice as many appointees relative to the past. The negative effect of delays is compounded by the greater number of appointees.
For those nominated, their lives are put on hold for months, and even years, as they wait for a hearing and approval. Some never even make it out the gate. One qualified Biden appointee had her nomination pulled because she was judged to have too much personal debt, a potential issue that Senators might go after. If appointees are supposed to be avatars of change in the government, they can hardly do so while sitting on the sidelines, while Senators demand perfect candidates.
If you are an advocate of legislative power, you might think this is simply the price of accountability. And to be sure, the Senate can block some truly bizarre appointees. But when the Senate can’t be bothered to process these nominations in a timely fashion, or allows the appointments to be blocked for reasons disconnected from the actual qualifications of candidates, it makes a mockery of having an advise and consent process for such a large portion of executive branch leadership.
The Senate isn’t doing its job when it comes to appointees
The great organizational theorist Henry Mintzberg once used the idea of military appointees to illustrate how odd the US approach to political appointees is:
If political appointments are so wonderful, how come they are not used in the military? Imagine a U.S. president replacing all the one- and two-star and most of the three-star generals of the army with political appointees. There would be outrage. “You can’t run the army this way,” people would insist. “You have to have devoted, experienced people.” Well, why is it any different for the departments of commerce, education, or state?
But that is exactly what is happening. Tommy Tuberville, the first term Alabama Senator most recently in the news for defending white nationalism, has single-handedly blocked all military political appointments to evince his displeasure about abortion policies. Specifically, he is upset that the military pays for travel costs for abortions (though not the cost of the abortions themselves) for members who live in a state where this service is not available.
The hypothetical that Mintzberg used as a ridiculous hypothetical is now a reality. More than 270 appointees have been caught in Tuberville’s blockade and it will increase to 650 by the end of the year. Mintzberg was worried about one- and two-star generals, but 64 three- and four-star positions will soon be in Senatorial purgatory. The effects are starting to be seen. The Marines no longer have a permanent commanding officer for the first time in a century. The inability to promote officers has a domino effect, preventing promotions at lower levels to fill the gaps that would otherwise be created. High-ranking officers are being asked to delay their retirement.
Tuberville made his support of the military a central part of his election campaign pledging to donate his Senate salary to veterans. He didn’t keep that pledge, but is actively screwing up the leadership of the military in order to force female members to pay out-of-pocket for medical health costs.
A serious institutional body would not allow a former college football coach to leave the largest military in the world, one which consumes about $800 billion per year, rudderless because of disagreements about abortion policy.
Tuberville’s position is not popular. He won’t introduce a bill for his colleagues to vote on. Other Republican Senators have offered Tuberville an offramp. The Secretary of Defense has talked to him multiple times. But he has dug his heels in. A bipartisan group of seven former Secretaries of Defense wrote a letter to Senate leaders that the hold was hurting military readiness, in early May. But Tuberville insists he knows better.
And the Senate enables all of this. Senatorial courtesy is such that a single Senator can put a hold on the entire process of military appointments. In other words, he is using the appointments process to (fail to) advance an unpopular policy.
I can’t quite put into words how this makes me feel, but this about sums it up.
To understand how this could happen, I talked to Matt Glassman, an expert on Congress at Georgetown University. How can one Senator block these appointments? The short answer is that Senate rules require an individual vote of the candidate, or setting aside the rules by unanimous consent. “The custom has been to set aside the Senate rules by unanimous consent. Tuberville is just refusing to do that and forcing them to follow the rules” says Glassman, who further explains that:
The norm on military promotions has historically been that the Senate sets these rules aside by unanimous consent, and does the promotions in big groups, so it takes mere seconds and there are no votes. Tuberville is refusing to agree to that unanimous consent request. He can't unilaterally stop the appointments, but what he is essentially doing is forcing them to consider each promotion individually and force a vote on each promotion individually, and that would just take way too much time on the floor, given that there are hundreds of nominations.
In other words, the Senate normally suspends its usual appointments process for the military because, presumably, the military is too damn important to mess around with the usual vagaries of appointments process. The appointees themselves are different because they are career uniformed officers moving up the ranks, rather than outside actors entering government, and so are not treated as appointees in the usual parlance. In other words, they probably not should be appointees in the first place.
While Tuberville is an extreme example, he is far from unusual. Populist Senators who rode the Trump anti-statist wave have no problem in using appointments to advance their agendas, however unrealistic, even as it undermines the capacity of agencies. JD Vance announced he would put a hold on all Department of Justice appointees to protest the indictment of Trump.
With Vance, we are squarely in the “pretty nice justice system you got there - shame if anything were to happen to it.” Vance’s tactics are less extreme than Tuberville’s because delays and filibusters around non-military appointments are already the norm.
Josh Hawley is blocking all Energy Department nominees because he is waiting on a radioactive waste action plan from the Biden administration. Ted Cruz is blocking Commerce Department appointees. Rand Paul is currently blocking all State Department nominees, because he says he wants more information about the origins of the Covid pandemic, a request unrelated to the qualifications of the appointees in question, and not a request the State Department can actually satisfy. The blockade affects more than 60 nominees, including 38 for ambassadorial posts. All but three of those ambassadors nominees are career officials, who tend to get the most diplomatically tricky positions that cannot be trusted to big donors who take the most glamorous Ambassador positions, including hotspots like Israel, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon. Some have been waiting 18 months for their nomination to be confirmed. Seems like America would be better off having ambassadors in such places that were not dependent on the whims of Rand Paul.
How effective can a government be without functional leadership mechanisms for the most core governmental services: military, justice and foreign affairs?
While Republicans are more extreme, Senators on both sides of the aisle have decided that agencies should not have leadership in place until their pet issues are resolved. Bernie Sanders promises to block the head of the National Institutes of Health until the administration releases a plan to reduce drug prices. Joe Manchin has pledged to block every EPA nominee unless Biden rescinds proposed power plan regulations.
If the Senators have the votes to pass their preferred policies, they should pass them. Leaving agencies rudderless is not a reasonable way to make policy. Providing advice and consent on appointees is quite a different thing than not providing advice and consent on appointees to pursue an unrelated topic. Procedural holds are an abuse of Senatorial power, not a fulfillment of it.
Acting like leaders
What makes this even more galling is that Congress has made clear that it wants qualified appointees in place. The Vacancies Act of 1998 restricts which officers can serve in an “acting” position while appointment slots remain vacant, and how long they can hold that position. The Trump administration abused this process, by rotating officials in an out in an acting capacity, often failing to nominate anyone, and in some cases violating the Act. To give a scale of how much Trump relied on them, acting officials occupied 1 in every 9 days that Cabinet-level positions were in place for Trump’s first three years, about three times the rate of the Obama administration.
Vacancies in key positions grind certain type of government processes to a halt. Sometimes Presidents take advantage of this, strategically leaving positions vacant. The Merit Systems Protection Board, the last appeals venue for disciplined or fired employees, wasn’t staffed during the entirety of the Trump administration.2 Which created a 3,000 case backlog. Appeals processes wind on for years because they rely on political appointees who are not in place. And again, the Senate was at least partly to blame, failing to move of Trump nominations when he finally made them. The result was that during an administration featuring documented cases of political abuse, the federal unit designed to fight against politicization did not exist.
This sort of strategic use of vacancies makes sense if President’s think a certain policy area would benefit from benign neglect, or if their priorities and attention are simply elsewhere. They may also prefer interim appointees, argues Yale political scientist Christina Kinane, as a way to work around Senate oversight. Trump was characteristically blunt about this saying “I like acting [officials], because I can move quickly, gives me more flexibility.”
Aggrieved Democrats see this as a loophole that needs to be closed. But Presidents can fairly point at Congress, asking what they are supposed to do when the Senate does not process appointments.
“Acting” officials already can only stay in position for a limited amount of time, and lack a mandate to lead. They are lame ducks from day one. David Lewis describes them as
the equivalent of substitute teachers. Vacancies delay long-term planning, lead to less investment by outside stakeholders (until someone permanent selected), and hinder implementation and management. My own work connecting vacancies to performance shows a pretty strong negative correlation.
While I am sympathetic to proposals to curb the abuses of the Trump administration, limiting acting officials to less time in charge (one proposal calls for 60 days), it is hard to take them seriously when they ignore that the Senate is taking longer and longer to process nominees. And vacancies were not a Trump only problem. From Carter to Obama, Senate approved positions were vacant about one-quarter of the time.
Reducing the number of Senate appointees, putting a clock on the process, and getting rid of “procedural holds” unrelated to the candidate would compel Congress to uphold its end of the bargain.
A bad system could get dramatically worse
None of this is new. Good government groups have been arguing for reducing the number of appointees for decades. In 1990, former Federal Reserve Chair Paul Volcker led a commission that proposed that the US needed to cut its appointees. Instead, the number of appointees has increased from about 3,000 to 4,000 in the intervening years.
The US system of government, already an outlier, becomes ever more politicized. And we are not better governed for it. This is partly because of the growth, and ensuing delays, of Senate-approved positions. According to the Congressional expert Matt Glassman:
In the long view of 30-50 years, it has gotten tremendously worse. Nominees used to be approved all the time by bare majorities, without filibusters. But, of course, since about 2011 everything in the Senate has been filibustered by the minority, it's no longer a tool to express intensity of opposition, it's just the norm.
Good government groups like the Partnership for Public Service or the National Academy of Public Administration continue to argue today for fewer appointee slots. But the political winds are blowing in the other direction.
Increased polarization, and the increased anti-statist tendencies of the Trump-era GOP, has led the far-right to decide that more, rather than less, politicization is better. They would not put it that way, but that is what it amounts to. This is a broad agenda they are explicit about, including eliminating the independence of agencies and positions.
The threat of the Trump-era Schedule F cannot be overstated. This is an executive order that would allow the President to convert career officials into appointees, making them at-will employees that can be removed at his whim. Trump and his primary GOP rivals have made clear they will use this tool to aggressively purge those not sufficiently loyal, and much of the conservative movement is behind them. If the US is an underperforming outlier now with 4,000 political appointees, imagine how chaotic things will get with 50,000 appointees?
The 50,000 figure is not something I am pulling out of thin air. The author of the Schedule F order, James Sherk, offered it as a likely and low end estimate: “I think there are ways you could broaden the scope of the order. How much is an open question…I think you can expand it beyond 50,000….I think it could be somewhat broadened to sweep in some more of those positions that have an influence on policy.” He also said “All executive authority is vested in the President. Every federal employee should serve at the pleasure of the president.” The long run vision here is a completely politicized administration. It’s not about performance, but control.
According to Professor Lewis:
The solution to this is not more appointees. We have more than any other developed democracy by a long shot. By adding layers of political into the bureaucracy all you do is make the bureaucracy less effective. Presidents will see pretty quickly that 50,000 more appointees leads to more mistakes, less predictability, poorer decisions, and ultimately less ability to compete with more effective governments and solve hard problems that require professional expertise. Better solutions involve reducing appointees, selecting more capable leaders, onboarding new ones effectively, and reinvigorating a civil service that values professional non-partisanship.
The Senate has not blocked Schedule F for the simple reason the GOP won’t support such an action. Even if they are indifferent to negative effects of Schedule F on government performance, they should care about institutional prerogatives. Their ability to exert control over the executive branch by withholding confirmation of 1,300 appointees is going to become a lot less important when the President has 50,000 appointees at his disposal. More broadly, the general failure of Congress to modernize the civil service, or to use its oversight power to improve government performance, has left a vacuum, emboldening Presidents. The Senate has diminished its own power, using what remains in petty ways that throw a wrench in the machinery of government rather than exert real institutional control over the administrative state.
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Some countries allow career officials to step into political roles, but generally with the ability to return to the job security of their career position.
Trump officials claim that adding more political appointees would not be used for partisan purposes. Their treatment of the MSPB, a post-Watergate creation, is another reason we should not take this seriously. Similarly, the fact that Inspectors General are political appointees reflects norm from an earlier age that makes them much less effective as safeguards from politicization today, when Trump simply fired those that were investigating him.