Center Blog

Presidential Appointments: The News Isn’t All Bad


August 10, 2016

Zach Piaker, Associate Manager, Partnership for Public Service


It’s no secret that Congress has become increasingly paralyzed by partisanship in recent years. A clear symptom of this is the Senate confirmation process, which has grown more onerous during the last several administrations. Under the Obama administration, executive branch nominees have taken nearly twice as long to get confirmed, and have failed nearly twice as often, as they did under President George H.W. Bush. Obama’s nominations also have failed significantly more often, meaning they were withdrawn, returned to the president, or rejected by the Senate.

As we wrote in our report, Government Disservice: Overcoming Washington Dysfunction to Improve Congressional Stewardship of the Executive Branch, the lengthy confirmation process often leaves key leadership voids and discourages top talent from government service, negatively impacting federal agencies by slowing decision-making and ultimately diluting the federal government’s ability to best serve the public interest.

However, it would be inaccurate to simply blame Congress. Finding qualified candidates, vetting them, obtaining the necessary security clearances, and complying with federal financial disclosure and ethics requirements is a long and complex process, which must all be completed before the nomination is officially submitted to the Senate. In recent years, approximately 70 percent of the time spent to fill Senate-confirmed positions has been the result of slow processing and delays by the executive branch, according to data collected by Berkeley Law Prof. Anne O’Connell.

Plan for Success

The good news is that this means the ability to quickly staff the next administration will lie largely within the control of the new president. In order to improve the pace of the nomination process, the presidential transition teams for both presidential candidates should immediately start building out the teams of people responsible for identifying and vetting candidates for politically appointed positions and take full advantage of the range of resources provided by the federal government.

The importance of early planning is underscored by the data, which demonstrates that it is easier to “go fast” than to “go slow” at the start of an administration. Across the George H. W. Bush through Obama administrations, presidents have enjoyed the fastest confirmation times and lowest failure rates for their nominees in the first year in office. If the next administration is not prepared to take full advantage of their first-year halo effect, it will only find it more difficult down the road.

Steps To Bring On a New Team

Here are a few key steps transition teams should take now to be ready to get the new president’s political appointees in place as soon as possible:

  • Identify and appoint a head of presidential appointments
  • Set clear and ambitious goals, and prioritize the list of Senate-confirmed positions
  • Develop clear rules and guidelines for your team to follow as they vet potential nominees, taking into account past precedent
  • Make contact with the Department of Justice, FBI and Office of Government Ethics to understand the security clearance and financial disclosure processes
  • In the post-election period, educate prospective nominees on the ramifications of public service and the importance of completing required paperwork in a timely fashion

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