As the Obama Administration begins the second year of its second term, the Administration continues to face numerous vacancies throughout government in key positions. As expected, many appointees left government in 2013 after completing four or five years of service. The Senate confirmation process continues to move slowly, even with the recent change in Senate rules to lower barriers for confirmation.
One way to speed up the selection and confirmation process during the second term is for the Administration to select and nominate senior career executives to fill some of the vacant positions throughout government. In many cases, there are career officials now serving as the “Acting” head of their organization. There have been numerous cases over the years in which “Acting” career officials have actually served longer in their position than a politically appointed agency head that had a short tenure.
The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 (CSRA) anticipated such situations and included legislation permitting the appointment of members of the Senior Executive Service (SES) to Presidential Appointment with Senate Confirmations (PAS) positions. Under the CSRA, an SES member can receive a PAS appointment and then return to his or her SES position at the end of an Administration. The SES member could resume his or her career in the agency they had been serving or assume a new position in another agency. Up until passage of the CRSA, a senior executive would have had to leave government at the end of an Administration after completion of their PAS appointment. This served as a major deterrent to outstanding career individuals to accepting a PAS appointment that would result in the end of their government service.
Since career officials are already in government and have usually had long careers in their agencies, they are known to many Senators and Senate staff members. As current government officials, they will already have the needed security clearances for their positions and have completed financial disclosure forms. Both of these factors may make their confirmation somewhat smoother than those coming in from outside of government and have to start from “scratch.” Based on our research, the confirmation process for individuals with prior (or current) government service is somewhat quicker than for those coming into government for the first time.
The selection of a career executive sends an important signal to the entire career civil service. Over the past four years, we have had the unique opportunity to interview 42 high-ranking Obama Administration executives. As reported in What Government Does: How Political Executives Manage, we interviewed several career executives who had received PAS appointments. There are a number of agencies that have had both political appointees from outside of the organization and career executives from within the agencies selected to head an agency. Patrick Gallagher, Director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in the Department of Commerce, was a career executive who was nominated and confirmed to serve as Director in 2009 after having served as Deputy Director for 13 months. Gallagher remarked to us how pleased civil servants in the agency had been to see a careerist selected as agency head at a crucial time in the organization’s history. (In addition to serving as head of NIST, Gallagher has also been serving as Acting Deputy Secretary of Commerce since June 2013).
The selection of a career executive from within the organization also speeds up the learning curve of a political appointee. In reflecting on his appointment, Department of Veterans Affairs Under Secretary for Health Robert Petzel told us, “I had worked for 40 years in the organization. So I knew the people and the processes in the agency.” Petzel also noted the immense challenge facing an individual coming into a complex agency without prior experience in that organization.
Another example of career official being selected for a PAS position is John Morton, former Director of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the Department of Homeland Security. Morton told us, “It was a great honor to be selected as Director of ICE. I was a career person. I had been a criminal prosecutor in the Department of Justice. So I had been a long-term observer of the agency. I knew the mission quite well and I knew the people in the agency.”
During a second term of an administration, the need for continuity is very important. This is in contrast to the start of a new administration (especially when there is a change of party) in which discontinuity is sought. Career officials also have important relationships already in place – within their agency, their department, the White House, and Congress. By looking close to home and considering top career executives for PAS positions, a second term Administration can provide the needed continuity to enable the Administration to complete and achieve its policy and administrative goals.