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On May 4 and 5, 2012, Indiana University’ s School of Public and Environmental Affairs and Virginia Tech’s Center for Public Administration and Policy and School of Public and International Affairs sponsored a workshop on “Appointee Politics and the Implications for Government Effectiveness.” The workshop drew 52 guests from Capitol Hill, Washington policymaking circles, and universities for two days of discussion and debate at CPAP-Virginia Tech’s old town Alexandria campus.


Clay Johnson III, the Bush for President Transition Planner, gave the keynote speech laying out the problems with nomination and appointments that a new president faces upon taking office. The president must sift through hundreds of thousands of resumes, anticipate objections by the Senate, and get key nominees in place immediately in agencies important to the president’s policy agenda and in agencies important to national security. Johnson offered suggestions for the next transition, chief among them were the recommendations to start vetting potential nominees well before the election, and to set nomination and confirmation timetables and goals. 

The two-day conference also featured a mix of on and off-the-record insights from reform advocates on Capitol Hill.  Participants from congressional committees and the Congressional Research Service focused attention on the problems of confirmation delay and vacancies, and Mark Abramson of Leadership Inc. reminded participants of the potentially constructive role that careerists can play in fulfilling appointees’ policy objectives, and in helping appointees look before they leap. Abramson drew on his long experience in Washington, and, for his most recent book, on interviews with 24 top-level Obama officials. Appointees in attendance included Thomas Weko and Mary Jo Wills who added the voice of experience, recounting how appointees themselves can sometimes be called upon to manage tensions among career staff and political superiors.

Scholars of the administrative presidency traded advice about techniques for gathering data on appointments. David Nixon summarized the research on appointee vacancies and the growth in appointed positions, but pointed to the dearth of data on the views and policy predilections of appointees themselves. Nixon also made the provocative claim that the appointments process is working fine until scholars prove otherwise.

If the presidential appointment process is broken, however, scholars can add empirical data about how it is broken and theoretical claims about what kind of appointment process is consistent with popular sovereignty and democratic norms. Bill Resh offered a contribution to empirical knowledge by presenting a new dataset of presidentially appointed and Senate confirmed (PAS) appointees in all departments, single-headed independent agencies, and Executive Office of the President organizations during the administrations of George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, between January 20, 1989 and January 20, 2009. Resh and colleagues compiled more than 2,300 valid observations using the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), Government Accountability Office (GAO), and a variety of published sources. Resh is working on this dataset with Matthew Dull and Patrick Roberts and able research assistants. After very useful comments at the workshop on the dataset project, they hope to make the dataset widely available very soon.

The conference primarily focused on presidentially-appointed, Senate confirmed appointees, but Richard Waterman cautioned participants that a primary focus on PAS appointments ignores much of the diversity in appointments and may provide a distorted picture of presidential appointment politics since appointments to lower level positions may function differently. In a paper he is working on with David Lewis, Waterman examines Schedule C and SES appointments in the Bush and Obama Departments of Labor. Waterman found that obtaining the resumes of lower level appointees was no easy task, but it will be essential if scholars are to measure the work and personal characteristics of appointees.

Robert Durant refocused the conversation around the place of appointee politics and the administrative presidency in American government more broadly. And in a talk that could have been called “Politicization vs. Centralization,” Andy Rudalevige portrayed presidential expansion of appointed position as part of a politicization strategy that presidents sometimes choose over a strategy of centralization of control in the White House. In a different vein, Patrick Roberts and Matthew Dull asked whether appointees are best understood as a single category, or as multiple types. They then tested the idea by analyzing oversight appointees–inspectors general, general counsels, and CFOs–as a type of appointee with its own history and problems.

Another line of discussion focused on whether appointees were best seen from great heights, as patterns of large-N data, or whether appointee politics were best understood through the close observation of one or a few cases. Yet another version of the debate asked whether appointees were best studied in a snapshot of the present day, or as part of a process of an evolution of American government that produced particular virtues of political responsiveness and representation and particular problems of overt politicization, and lengthy confirmation times and vacancies.

Some scholars favored one position more than others, but Bert RockmanAnne KhademianMartha KumarMarissa GoldenKaren HultMatthew Dickinson, and James Pfiffner all recognized that the study of appointees required these multiple perspectives.

The workshop brought together practitioners and scholars from different perspectives, and attendees reported hearing the comment below more than once, each time with the name of a different foreign tribe inserted in the blank (whether political scientists, public administration scholars, or Washington policymakers).

“Wow, these _________ really do know something about political appointees.”

Matthew Dull
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Matthew Dull is an assistant professor at the Center for Public Administration & Policy, School of Public and International Affairs, Virginia Tech, Alexandria Center.  His research focuses on administrative politics and American political institutions; management reform; public policy analysis, professional expertise, and measurement.

William G. Resh
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William G. Resh is an assistant professor at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs. His research focuses on executive politics, organizational behavior, and personnel policy.

Patrick S. Roberts
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Patrick S. Roberts is an associate professor in the Center for Public Administration and Policy in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech in Alexandria, Virginia.