Center Blog

Into Thin Air: A Guide for Political Appointees

April 13, 2016

Teresa Lewandowski, Fellow, Partnership for Public Service

The Senate confirmation process for potential political appointees is like an expedition up the slopes of Mt. Everest. Nominees face an arduous journey in which they are thrust into a highly visible, yet a vulnerable position. During this precarious and sometimes frustrating endeavor, they are exposed to harsh elements: the scrutiny of both the public and Congress.

Like explorers, nominees are not expected to face their trek alone—they have a trusted group within the transition team to help them tackle the challenges of confirmation. To get a head start, presidential candidates should name the head of the appointments team by mid-May, and build the staff as the transition progresses.

The appointments team’s work should significantly ramp up in the pre-election period and continue through the post-election timeframe to vet candidates for key agency roles. The appointments team is responsible for recommending Cabinet members as well as individuals for undersecretary and assistant secretary positions, and other critical politically-appointed jobs.

In the post-election period, nominees will need to be coached before their Senate confirmation hearings, and most need to be given a “Sherpa.”

Like their mountaineering counterparts, Sherpas serve as the nominee’s most dedicated and vital support system. A Sherpa helps the nominee build relationships on Capitol Hill, avoid common political pitfalls, and most importantly, prepare for their confirmation hearing. The Sherpa can be an invaluable resource to the nominee, helping them navigate the rocky path to a confirmation.

Confirmation can be a difficult process for presidential nominees. They are required to fill out long, probing questionnaires on everything from personal finances to travel history, and some will receive intense scrutiny from Senate committees.

Though the confirmation process is an uphill journey, those who make it through can settle into their new position at the peak of government leadership.

For more on appointments and the transition, see The Center’s Publication and Resource Library, for example to learn about appointed positions in different agencies and a comprehensive Presidential Transition Guide.


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