This piece was originally published on the Partnership for Public Service’s blog, We the Partnership, on September 9, 2021.
By Carter Hirschhorn and Dan Hyman
Saturday marks the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, a tragedy that changed our country and the world. In 2004, a bipartisan commission investigating the attacks issued the “9/11 Commission Report,” which made 41 recommendations to prevent future terrorist attacks and strengthen our national security. One of the report’s most notable findings was that a delayed presidential transition in 2000 “hampered the new administration in identifying, recruiting, clearing, and obtaining Senate confirmation of key appointees.”
Importantly, this finding revealed our country’s flawed political appointment process and showed how slow Senate confirmations can imperil our national security. The commission’s report recommended several improvements to this process to ensure both our country’s safety – particularly during and in the immediate aftermath of a presidential transition – and continuity within government.
Appointment delays in 2001
The commission found that George W. Bush lacked key deputy Cabinet and subcabinet officials until the spring and summer of 2001, noting that “the new administration—like others before it—did not have its team on the job until at least six months after it took office,” or less than two months before 9/11. On the day of the attacks, only 57% of the top 123 Senate-confirmed positions were filled at the Pentagon, the Justice Department and the State Department combined, excluding ambassadors, U.S. marshals and attorneys.
New legislation since 2001
In the aftermath of 9/11, new laws addressed several recommendations highlighted in the “9/11 Commission Report.” The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 expedited security clearances for key national security positions, recommended that administrations submit nominations for national security positions by Inauguration Day and encouraged the full Senate to vote on these positions within 30 days of nomination.
Despite these advances, the Senate confirmation process takes longer than ever; and vacancies in key Senate-confirmed positions continue to increase. For example, the Partnership’s latest report, Unconfirmed: Why reducing the number of Senate-confirmed positions can make government more effective, revealed that the number of positions requiring Senate confirmation has grown more than 50% from 1960. Partly for this reason, several positions critical to our safety and national security remain unfilled more than seven months after President Biden’s inauguration. These positions include the assistant secretary for homeland defense and global security at the Defense Department, the assistant secretary for intelligence and research at the State Department, and the assistant attorney general for the national security division at the Justice Department.
The fateful morning of Sept. 11 and the subsequent 9/11 Commission Report revealed our need for a more efficient Senate confirmation process. Accelerating this process and reducing the number of Senate-confirmed positions would strengthen our government’s ability to protect the nation and serve the public. To build a better government and a stronger democracy, we must efficiently fill vital leadership roles throughout the federal workforce. That can only happen if we continue to improve the way presidential appointments are made.
 As of Wednesday, September 8 the Senate had confirmed Biden nominees for 27% of the top 139 positions at the Pentagon, Justice and State departments combined – excluding ambassadors, U.S. marshals and attorneys.
By Emma Jones and Christina Condreay
For most people, the only way to find out who is serving in the top decision-making positions in government is to reference a document called the Plum Book. Unfortunately, this document has significant procedural and factual problems and could be greatly improved.
The Plum Book remains the best source of valuable information about our senior government leaders, including names, position titles, salary information and term expiration dates. It contains information on more than 4,000 political appointees – about 1,200 of whom are subject to Senate confirmation – along with thousands of other jobs filled by senior career officials in the federal civil service.
However, the Plum Book is only published every four years. This means that information about some positions is outdated before it is even made available to the public. Even more problematic, the most recent version of the Plum Book contains numerous errors and shortcomings. Here are three of the biggest mistakes in the latest Plum Book published on Dec. 1, 2020:
1. Some agencies are omitted without explanation.
The following agencies appear in the 2016 Plum Book, but not in the 2020 edition. These organizations remain active and are funded. Combined, they have about a dozen presidentially appointed positions requiring Senate confirmation and between 60 and 100 positions not requiring Senate confirmation.
Department of Agriculture Office of the Inspector General.
Office of the Director for National Intelligence.
Administrative Conference of the United States.
Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (United States Access Board).
Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council.
International Boundary Commission: United States and Canada.
Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Utah Reclamation Mitigation and Conservation Commission.
2. The Plum Book is missing positions.
Other agencies appear in the 2020 Plum Book, but are missing key positions. Agencies with incomplete position totals include the National Endowment for the Arts, the United States Holocaust Memorial Council and the United States Postal Service. Scholars at Vanderbilt University have identified additional positions that were missing from both the 2016 and 2020 Plum Books. In total, hundreds of positions are not included in the 2020 Plum Book.
3. The appendix does not match the rest of the document.
The 2020 Plum Book also only counts filled positions in the Senior Executive Service, a change from previous editions. This means that roughly 1,100 vacant positions out of about 8,000 of the government’s senior executives are not counted in the agency position totals listed in the appendix.
Since the Plum Book is only updated every four years, these mistakes could remain uncorrected until 2024. The Plum Book also does not include supporting methodological information or documentation of any changes made from previous editions or explanations for omissions. But this is not the first time it has been filled with errors.
Fortunately, there are several fundamental improvements that would make the Plum Book more useful. First, the information should be updated as close to real-time as possible. Second, errors should be fixed as soon as they are caught. Third, while the Plum Book is available online as a PDF and through a few other options, it should be available in a more downloadable and machine-readable format. Fourth, providing data based on the self-identified demographic information of individuals holding positions listed in the Plum Book would help shed light on how well the government is doing in attracting and retaining a diverse workforce. Proposed legislation called the PLUM Act would accomplish all these objectives.
These improvements would bring increased transparency and accountability to the federal government by helping ensure the American people know who is serving in top decision-making positions. In addition, the PLUM Act would provide timely information on Senate-confirmed positions and whether they are vacant or filled by an acting official, providing transparency and reinforcing accountability under the Vacancies Act. On June 29, 2021, the PLUM Act was reported out of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.
Congress should pass the PLUM Act to modernize the Plum Book and prevent major mistakes from occurring in future editions of a critically important government document.
By Danna Subia
In recognition of May as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, here is a list of prominent Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who have served in the federal government.
Elaine Chao – Secretary of Labor and Secretary of Transportation
President George W. Bush appointed Chao to be secretary of Labor in 2001, making her the first Asian American woman and first Taiwanese American in U.S. history to be appointed to a Cabinet position. President Donald Trump later appointed Chao to be secretary of Transportation in 2017. Prior to holding those positions, Chao had been a successful businesswoman, the director of the Peace Corps and served in the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
Hiram Fong – Senator from Hawaii
In 1959, Fong was the first person of Chinese descent elected to Congress and the first Asian Pacific American elected to the Senate, where he served for nearly two decades. In 1964, he was the first Chinese American candidate for the presidency, and he is the only Republican to serve as the senator from Hawaii.
Kamala Harris – Vice President
Harris became the highest-ranking female official in U.S. history when she was elected vice president in 2020. Harris – whose mother was born in India – also became the first Asian American and African American vice president. Harris was the attorney general of California from 2011 to 2017 and a senator from California beginning in 2017.
Mazie Hirono – Senator from Hawaii
Hirono has been a senator from Hawaii since 2013. She was the first Asian American woman elected to the Senate and the first elected female senator from Hawaii. She was elected to the House in 2006. Hirono was born in Japan and was the only person of Asian ancestry serving in the Senate from 2013 until 2017.
Daniel Inouye – Senator from Hawaii
Inouye became the first Japanese American to serve in the House of Representatives in 1959 and the first Japanese American to serve in the Senate in 1962. He did not lose an election in 58 years. Prior to holding office, Inouye served in the Army during World War II and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart with Cluster.
Chris Lu – Deputy Secretary of Labor
Lu was confirmed as deputy secretary of Labor under President Barack Obama in 2014, making him the second Asian American to hold such a position in a Cabinet department. From 2009 to 2013, Lu was assistant to the president and the White House cabinet secretary. He also co-chaired the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Lu is currently President Joe Biden’s nominee to serve as the representative to the U.N. for management and reform.
Norman Mineta – Secretary of Transportation
Appointed by President Bill Clinton in 2000 to be secretary of Commerce, Mineta was the first Asian American and Pacific Islander to be appointed to a Cabinet position. He was later appointed in 2001 by George W. Bush to be secretary of Transportation and went on to serve in this position for the longest amount of time in the department’s history.
Pat Saiki – Administrator of the Small Business Administration
George H. W. Bush appointed Pat Saiki to be administrator of the Small Business Administration in 1991. In 1986, Saiki was the first Republican elected to represent Hawaii in the House since it gained statehood.
Eric Shinseki – Secretary of Veterans Affairs
Eric Shinseki was Obama’s choice for secretary of Veterans Affairs in 2009, making him the first Asian American to serve in that position. Previously, Shinseki had a long career in the military, where he served as the 34th chief of staff of the Army and was the first Asian American four-star general. He served two tours in the Vietnam War for which he was awarded three Bronze Star Medals for valor and two Purple Hearts.
By Carlos Galina
With the confirmation of Marty Walsh on March 22 to be secretary of Labor, the Senate approved all of President Joe Biden’s 15 Cabinet statutory nominations in 61 days. How does the U.S. appointment process compare with other countries?
The answer is that the U.S. takes far longer to confirm its executive Cabinet than most other countries.
Among the 20 countries with the highest gross domestic product, the U.S. was the second slowest during the most recent transitions to a new head of state.
Besides having more positions requiring political appointments, the slow confirmation process is largely explained by the fact that the U.S. has a presidential form of government. The Constitution defines this form of governing as having an executive who serves as the head of the government and is separate from the legislative branch. Only six of the 20 largest economies have presidential systems. Many others have forms of government which give the executive more control over the selection of their Cabinet. For example, Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom typically have a prepared list of Cabinet appointees ready for consideration on the day of the executive’s inauguration.
Filling a Cabinet is critical for any new administration to begin governing. Cabinets comprise the secretaries or ministers heading various departments, and executives benefit from having key leadership positions filled quickly in order to execute their agendas. Delays in getting essential staff in place can leave national security planning gaps while slowing policy implementation and personnel decisions.
In the U.S., the length of the confirmation process has varied in recent years. While the Senate took 61 days to confirm Biden’s Cabinet, Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama had all of their Cabinet secretaries confirmed in 97 and 98 days, respectively. President George W. Bush’s full Cabinet was confirmed in 12 days and President Bill Clinton’s in 50.
The confirmation of Cabinet officials is an important part of our system of checks and balances, and gives the legislative branch oversight power on parts of the executive branch. However, even when comparing the length of the American process with other countries that have a similar form of government – most of which are much smaller – the American confirmation process is among the longest.
Of the 30 countries with the highest GDP and presidential systems, only three took longer than the U.S. to fill their Cabinet in the most recent transitions to a new head of state: Nigeria (166 days), Liberia (108) and South Korea (96).
According to each country’s constitution, only six of those 30 countries with presidential systems require Cabinet confirmations by a national legislature. By contrast, other presidential systems provide presidents with full responsibility to select, appoint and have their executive team ready to govern on their first day in office. Countries such as Brazil, Chile and 14 others have Cabinets ready to serve on the day of the executive’s inauguration. Some of those countries give their legislatures confirmation authority for positions beyond the executive team, but unlike the U.S., they give the president full power to place most of their top officials.
According to David Lewis, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University, the U.S. has far more political appointees than any other developed democracy. Even though the U.S. confirmation system strengthens the system of checks and balances, delays in confirming Cabinet secretaries can influence staffing and the incoming administration’s capacity to govern. Congress and the White House should consider ways to make the entire confirmation process more efficient.
While the Constitution created a presidential system along with the Senate’s advice and consent role, and while legislative oversight of the president’s nominees is a critical democratic principle, today’s process is longer than almost anywhere else in the world. Steps should be taken to speed up the process so that incoming presidents have key leaders in place on or shortly after Inauguration Day to address the nation’s challenges.
The Center for Presidential Transition would like to thank Frieda Arenos of the National Democratic Institute for offering feedback for this report.
By Shannon Carroll
At the 100 day mark of his administration on April 29, President Joe Biden had outpaced his predecessors by appointing a record of nearly 1,500 officials to government positions not requiring Senate approval and by nominating 220 others for Senate confirmed jobs, a tribute to the extensive work that took place during the presidential transition.
But like his predecessors, Biden has been impeded by the slow Senate confirmation process that has kept him from getting key leaders in place across the government.
Of the roughly 1,200 positions that require Senate confirmation, the administration announced the selection of more individuals, and officially submitted more to the Senate, than prior administrations. In addition, the diversity and representation among the appointments is historic, and that includes the Cabinet.
However, only 44 of 220 appointments submitted to the Senate were confirmed by the 100th day. This compares to the 67 appointees confirmed by the 100th day during President Barack Obama’s administration, still a small number given the size of our government and importance of many of the unfilled positions.
Currently, for example, Biden nominees awaiting Senate approval include the deputy secretaries for the departments of Health and Human Services, Commerce, Labor, Agriculture and Education.
Unfortunately, no administration has been able to get more than about 5% of Senate confirmed jobs filled during the first 100 days. This is largely due to a Senate confirmation process that is slow and broken. In fact, the pace of Senate confirmations more than doubled between the Reagan and Trump administrations.
While the Constitution gives the Senate the responsibility to “advise and consent” on administration appointments, the sheer number of appointees requiring confirmation combined with institutional bottlenecks has created an untenable situation that is doing a disservice to the country.
The Partnership for Public Service, which is dedicated to making the federal government more effective, is eager to collaborate with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to improve the system, to reduce the number of political appointees, and ultimately to help presidents get qualified leaders on the job in a more timely manner so they may serve as stewards of our federal government
By Will Butler
On Jan. 20, the world watched as Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States. Despite all of the challenges and turmoil surrounding the election results, Biden’s presidency got off to a fast start due to extensive transition planning that began in the spring of 2020, with more than 1,100 political appointees sworn in and nine executive orders signed during his first few hours in office. The Biden team kicked off preparation for these activities nearly 10 months earlier, and the Partnership’s Center for Presidential Transition® provided crucial support throughout.
The Center also collaborated with the Trump White House to support their dual role: planning for a second term and executing their statutory duties as the incumbent administration in case there was a transfer of power. The Center supported career agency transition officials across the federal government, worked with Congress to make policies and processes, and created Ready to Serve, a comprehensive resource for those looking to serve as a political appointee.
In total, the Center created over 1,000 pages of new resources and provided various transition stakeholders with more than 150 historical documents. The Center connected nearly 200 subject-matter experts to share their advice with the Biden transition team, the Trump administration and career agency officials. The retrospective report offers an in-depth look at the pivotal support the Center provided—from laying the groundwork with the Biden and Trump teams almost a year ago to preparing prospective political appointees in recent months—and its role as the go-to resource for nonpartisan counsel and support for presidential transitions.
Presidents are responsible for about 4,000 political appointments, about 1,200 of which require Senate confirmation. This blog includes a comparison of how Biden’s pace of appointments and confirmations compares with the previous three presidents.
This table provides the number of nominations submitted to and confirmed by the Senate for positions in the executive, legislative and judicial branches on key dates early in an administration. Nominations for concurrent positions, like the ambassador to the General Assembly of the United Nations and the representative of the United States in the United Nations Security Council are counted as a single nomination.
Nominees seeking confirmation by the Senate to fill a presidentially-appointed position face a long and complex process. Each must contend with detailed vetting, background investigations, public scrutiny and challenging questions from the Senate. While the overwhelming majority of nominations are successful, withdrawals have occurred for every recent administration.
Of the more than 9,500 nominations Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump submitted, 77% were eventually confirmed. Another 19% were “returned” by the Senate, meaning they never received a vote before a Senate recess or by the end of the calendar year. Some of those returned nominations were resubmitted and confirmed at a later date. Finally, 4% were withdrawn by the president. For the last three presidents, that totaled 335 nominations for an average of about 17 a year.
While these withdrawals make up a small percentage of presidential nominations, they often receive significant media attention and consume time and resources for the White House, which must find another candidate, and the Senate, which must take up more of its limited time to consider someone new. More than two-thirds of those withdrawn happen soon after they are submitted to the Senate and prior to receiving a committee hearing.
When are nominations withdrawn?
In recent years, a handful of nominations have been announced, but never sent to the Senate.For example, Bush announced Linda Chavez as his nominee for secretary of Labor and Obama announced Judd Gregg for secretary of Commerce, but neither individual was officially submitted for consideration. However, instances like these are uncommon.
An analysis by the Center for Presidential Transition® of the 335 withdrawn nominations submitted by Bush, Obama and Trump found most are abandoned early in the Senate confirmation process.
The analysis found that of the withdrawn nominations:
69% were dropped before any Senate committee held a hearing.
10% were vacated after a committee hearing, but before being placed on the executive calendar for full Senate consideration.
20% were placed on the executive calendar, but withdrawn before being considered by the full Senate.
Only three of these nominations made it to the Senate floor for formal consideration, but were withdrawn before receiving a vote after motions to invoke cloture failed.
None of the 335 nominations received a full Senate vote.
Why are nominations withdrawn?
To understand the reasons nominations were withdrawn, the Center analyzed a subset of 193 withdrawals for positions within 24 key agencies. Of those:
25% of the withdrawals involved issues in a nominee’s past. Both the administration and Senate committees vet nominees on aspects of their history such as their taxes, employment, conflicts of interest, public statements, social media accounts and publications. In addition, the committees consider a nominee’s position on key issues and evaluate how the individual will work with the Senate.
18% were withdrawn due to direct or indirect Senate opposition often due to an administration policy.
15% were withdrawn due to changes within an administration, such as an agency reorganization or a position title change, which are reasons unrelated to the specific nominee.
12% were withdrawn due to administrative errors. These situations include a nomination submitted with a specific position title when a general title was needed, or with an incorrect length of service indicated on the paperwork.
11% were withdrawn due to personal reasons. In some cases, the nominee cited delays and the length of the confirmations process as primary reasons. The Center identified 39 nominations that sat without any Senate action for more than a year before they were withdrawn. These delays can be caused by a senator placing a hold for reasons that may or may not be related to the nomination itself or the Senate majority leader’s decision not to bring a nomination up for a floor vote.
19% of the withdrawals studied had no public information on the causes available.
The president’s Cabinet usually gets confirmed with little opposition, but it is inevitable that nominees run into problems as a result of the Senate’s advice and consent role.
By Paul Hitlinand Christina Condreay
March 10th marked President Joe Biden’s first 50 days in the White House. One of the main tasks for any new president is to fill approximately 1,250 positions in the federal government that require Senate confirmation. Biden has submitted more nominations than his recent predecessors at a comparable time, but the Senate has confirmed fewer of those nominees.
Through his 50 days in office, Biden officially nominated 57 people for Senate confirmed positions. That is more than each of the previous three presidents. Obama nominated almost as many with 55. However, the Senate has only confirmed 17 of Biden’s picks. Each of the three previous presidents had more nominees confirmed, although President Donald Trump had only one more with 18.
There are multiple reasons behind the Senate’s slower pace. The Jan. 5 runoff election in Georgia, which decided party control of the Senate, was certainly a contributing factor. So was the second impeachment trial of Trump, the prolonged negotiation over how power would be shared in an evenly divided Senate, and a variety of other political factors. Regardless, the Senate has an obligation to act quickly to ensure that our government has qualified and accountable leadership in place, especially during times of crisis.
For current information on the status of Biden’s nominations and Senate actions, visit the Biden Political Appointee Tracker which is maintained by The Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service.
By Jaqlyn Alderete
Ethics requirements are now essential for transition teams planning for a new administration and for appointees once a president takes office. These plans ensure that staff members do not personally benefit from their roles or promote agendas that create a conflict of interest.
The 2020 Presidential Transition Enhancement Act codifies the practice of previous transition teams implementing ethics plans that include provisions relating to classified information, lobbying, foreign agents and conflicts of interest. And once taking office, recent presidents have issued executive orders with ethics rules that govern executive branch appointee interactions with the public, provide for transparency and ensure coherence with laws regarding lobbying. If an individual is appointed to a position in a department, they must also abide by ethics rules issued by their own ethics division.
President Joe Biden’s transition team and his administration both issued ethics requirements and made them publicly available. While each plan centers on ensuring high ethical standards, there are differences which reflect the distinctions between serving on a transition team and serving in public office.
The Biden transition ethics plan called on staff members not to misuse their positions for personal benefit. It also emphasized safeguarding classified information and protecting the reputations of Biden, his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, and other top transition officials. The administration’s ethics pledge emphasizes restoring and maintaining public trust in government by focusing on preventing or resolving conflicts of interest.
Some of the differences in Biden’s two ethics requirements include:
The transition ethics plan had a lobbying restriction of one year while the administration’s pledge has a two-year prohibition. Both the administration’s and the transition’s ethics rules include provisions barring individuals from engaging in matters they worked on as lobbyists or as foreign agents, but for different periods of time.
The transition ethics plan included provisions regarding disclosure of nonpublic information while the administration pledge has no such provision. Transition team members were required to obtain authorization before seeking access to nonpublic information and pledge to not use such information for personal gain.
The transition ethics plan restricted team members from promoting their work in marketing materials during and for 12 months after their service.The administration’s ethics pledge does not include the same requirement. However, it states that appointees should not use their positions for personal gain and advises them to avoid using or appearing to use their government position for private benefit.
The transition plan restricts team members, their spouses and minor children from buying or selling individual stocks unless they get approval from the general counsel. Officials in presidentially-appointed positions requiring Senate confirmation are required to follow rules issued by the Office of Government Ethics regarding divestiture of investments and other financial interests.
The transition plan stated that team members could not make any representations on behalf of Biden or then-Senator Kamala Harris, their designees, or transition team officials without authorization.The administration ethics pledge does not mention this matter.
The goal of ethics agreements for a transition team and an administration is to ensure accountability and integrity among those serving in these institutions. Individuals serving on presidential transitions and in government must understand and follow all ethics rules to ensure their work is transparent and in the public interest.