Two decades later: How lessons from the 9/11 Commission Report can help us improve the political appointment process and protect our national security
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.
The Pre-Election Presidential Transition Act of 2010 provided additional pre-election services to presidential candidates and the incumbent administration, enabling them to better prepare for a transfer of power or a second term, and to more quickly nominate key officials. The Presidential Appointment Efficiency and Streamlining Act of 2011 also reduced the overall number of Senate-confirmed positions by 163 in an attempt to free up more time for the Senate to confirm higher-level, policy-making roles.
Key areas for improvement in 2021
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.