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In 1937 the Brownlow Committee famously declared: “the President needs help.”

Although FDR’s Committee was referring to the need for White House staff, the President now has plenty of help throughout the executive branch. Since Roosevelt’s Presidency, the Executive Office of the President has gained about 2,000 people, and the number of political appointees has increased to more than 7,000. Setting aside White House staffers and about 3,000 part time Presidential appointments, each new President fills about 3,000 positions with his or her partisans.

 

To lead departments and agencies, contemporary Presidents make appointments to about 800 full time PAS positions, which require Senate confirmation (not including US attorneys, US marshals, or ambassadors, which are also PAS). In addition, each new administration can appoint partisans amounting to 10% of the Senior Executive Service (about 800 of 8,000). And about 1,400 political “Schedule C” appointees at lower levels are spread throughout the whole executive branch. These approximately 3000 political appointees have policy making or policy related duties for helping Presidents direct executive branch policies. (These numbers are approximate; for details, see Bradley Patterson, To Serve the President .)

The purposes of Presidential appointments in the executive branch are laudable. Presidents are democratically elected and expected to carry out their campaign promises by directing the executive branch. Thus leadership by presidential appointees in executive positions is necessary and legitimate. Presidential appointees assure responsiveness to Presidential policy priorities throughout the executive branch. In addition to democratic legitimacy, political appointees bring new energy and new ideas to the government from the private sector, universities, and state and local governments.

But there is also a downside to the system of political appointments: the recruitment task is daunting, the pace of appointments is glacially slow, layers of political appointees dilute presidential leadership, and careers of career executives are prematurely shut off.

The pressures on a newly elected President to make political appointments are significant. According to President Taft, “every time I make an appointment I create nine enemies and one ingrate.” Thousands of campaign workers want to follow the new president to Washington to work in government jobs. Members of Congress urge the president to appoint their favorite staffer or constituent to executive branch positions. Even friends and families of the president are special pleaders. President Carter complained in his memoir: “I would be inundated with recommendations from every conceivable source . . . even family and friends, would all rush forward with proposals and fight to the last minute for their candidates.” (Keeping Faith, p. 61) The thirst for government jobs results in a flood of applications; in 2008 and 2009, more than 300,000 applications flooded into the Obama personnel operation, most of them on line. Many job seekers were unqualified, but it takes time to separate the wheat from the chaff.

As a result of the increasing number of appointees and delays in the Senate, the pace of appointments has consistently slowed over the past half century. Whereas it took John Kennedy an average of 2.4 months to bring his appointee on board, it took George W. Bush an average of 8.7 months. No recent President has made more than 25 PAS executive appointments before the first of April. In his first 100 days in office President Obama had filled only 17% of his top PAS positions. After their first years in office, President Reagan had appointed 86% of the top appointees, but President Obama only 64%.

The volume of Presidential appointees, combined with the vacancies resulting from delays in appointments, lead to problems of Presidential control and management of the government. The average time in office of political appointees is 2.5 years, with 25% staying fewer than 18 months. Vacancies in the top level PAS positions create vacuums in leadership that cannot be easily filled by unappointed career executives, who rightly do not presume to undertake new policy directions or represent a new administration. Vacancies created by rapid turnover result in loss of momentum and the need to bring new appointees up to speed against steep learning curves. Increasing numbers of layers between the President and the operating levels of agencies dilute Presidential direction.

Perhaps more importantly, the large numbers of positions that are filled with political appointees result in lower levels of competence in the leadership of executive branch agencies. Finding competent appointees at the top levels of government is not difficult because of the prestige of the appointments. But several levels down the executive schedule, finding people in comparable levels of management and convincing them to leave their positions to move to Washington is more difficult.

In addition, political pressures for patronage influence partisans in the Office of Presidential Personnel, and political supporters may or may not be well prepared for executive positions in the federal government. Deeper penetration of political appointees into executive branch bureaucracies closes off advancement opportunities for career executives and encourages them to shift their careers to the private sector. Career civil servants have been building their careers as experts in their policy areas and have years of managerial experience, including policy networks within the executive branch and Congress.

For all of the above reasons, reducing the total number of political appointments could significantly improve management of the executive branch. Judiciously cutting appointed positions would allow presidents to fill the top levels of the executive branch more quickly, reduce the layers between cabinet secretaries and the operational levels of government, preserve institutional memory, and improve the career aspirations of the best career executives.

James P. Pfiffner
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James P. Pfiffner is a University Professor and Director of the Doctoral Program in the School of Public Policy at George Mason University. He is the author or editor of 12 books on the Presidency and American Government. He has worked in the Director's Office at the US Office of Personnel Management and is an Academy Fellow.