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 contains appointment information for 170 agencies, while Appendix 1 provides summary counts for 158 distinct organizations. The 12 agencies excluded from the appendix include four legislative branch agencies and the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation. Additionally, the last six agencies listed alphabetically in the Plum Book are also missing from the appendix in addition to part of the White House that employs 82 people.
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 Heather Yang Hwalek
This post is part of the Partnership’s Ready to Serve series. Ready to Serve is a centralized resource for people who aspire to serve in a presidential administration as a political appointee.
Part-time federal advisory boards, commissions and committees are important parts of the federal government that generally receive little attention. Joining one of these groups is a great way for experienced individuals to engage in public service even if they do not hold a full-time government position.
Federal advisory boards and commissions are groups of subject matter experts convened by the executive branch to provide advice and recommendations to the president, agency heads, and other staff. There are roughly 1,000 boards or commissions across the government, and service is part-time and non-compensated. The Federal Advisory Committee Act is the controlling statute for the formation and administration of agency-level boards and commissions.
Different boards and commissions have different processes. Some are presidentially appointed and some are appointed at the agency level. Some take direct applications, some work through nominations and some are staffed through appointments that are less transparent. To express interest and gain support for any opportunities that interest you, it is important to reach out to relevant stakeholders and members of that board or commission’s “ecosystem.”
What is it like to serve on one of these boards, commissions or committees?
During the LCWINS webinar, panelists highlighted that serving on a board or commission is an opportunity to provide advice to government decision makers and help inform policy from an outside perspective. Service is also an opportunity to connect with other subject matter experts in the field. Many boards and commissions have subcommittees whose membership is broader than the main body. Service on such a subcommittee is another way to get involved.
Serving on a federal advisory board or commission can be hard work and may require a security clearance (see form SF-86), vetting from the White House or a certification that a member has no conflicts of interest.
Is it worth it?
Federal advisory boards and committees offer an opportunity for public service as an alternative to a full-time career or political appointments. The advice and recommendations of external subject matter experts strengthen policymaking. Those who have served in these positions endorse them resoundingly and say they are a great way to use one’s knowledge and experience to serve their country.
Heather Yang Hwalek coordinates the LCWINS webinar program and has a decade of national security experience with the federal government. LCWINS is an organization of women and allies from across the political spectrum working to advance gender inclusion at the highest levels of the U.S. national security and foreign policy workforce.
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
Last updated April 30, 2021 at 8:00 a.m.
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.
This post is part of the Partnership’s Ready to Serve series. Ready to Serve is a centralized resource for people who aspire to serve in a presidential administration as a political appointee.
I could never have imagined that a daughter of immigrants who “accidentally” picked a career working on state issues and campaigns would ever end up in the White House as a presidential appointee.
Through hard work, luck and a decade in state-based advocacy and political campaigns in California, I was able to make the leap to Washington, D.C. People who have experience at the grassroots may be surprised to learn how well-prepared they are for working at the national level – and especially serving as presidential appointees.
Here are a few reasons why people with experience outside the nation’s capital are well-suited for a presidential appointment.
You have experience seeing how government impacts communities
Having a background on state and local issues provides a good perspective on how the government touches lives and communities every day. Your background can help shape policy because you understand the opportunities and challenges communities face. For example, if you currently work in health care, you have first-hand knowledge of the issues associated with the coronavirus pandemic. Your perspective and relationships can be helpful in shaping policy.
Living in Washington, D.C., can mean you are far away from what is happening at the state or local level. That is why federal agencies have regional offices throughout the country to connect staff with the communities they serve. These outreach efforts would benefit from your on-the-ground experience.
Local governments are the “incubators for innovation”
Former Secretary of Labor Tom Perez called state and local governments the “incubators for innovations” because a wealth of good policy ideas originate there. Policies like paid family leave were approved by localities and states, and demonstrated that such reforms are possible and have been beneficial.
People who have worked on state and local issues can bring together policy expertise and coalitions on a wide range of subject areas. Shaping federal policies dealing the economic recovery, for example, can benefit from ideas that have worked at the local level. My previous experience helped me facilitate engagement between the federal and state governments.
You know how to get things done
In any large organization, effective people are the ones who know how to get things done by managing and navigating systems. A person with success on a local campaign or in state government understands this well. Working in the federal government has a similar dynamic. For example, to implement an executive order or host a conference, you need to interact with numerous departments and understand many different processes. The ability to navigate a complex environment is something a person with political campaign experience understands.
Becoming an appointee is not an easy process. But even though you may not realize it, people with experience and knowledge earned at the state and local levels provide an important perspective and great value to the federal government.
Alissa Ko is director of strategic giving and community engagement at Health Net. She served as a senior advisor at the White House during the Obama administration, leading outreach to states attorneys general, state legislators and the Asian American and Pacific Islander community.
By Jaqlyn Alderete and Christina Condreay
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.