The federal workforce is composed of about 2 million civil servants who provide continuity across presidential administrations and another 4,000 political appointees who are selected by the president. About 1,200 of these political appointees require Senate approval. Despite presidential interest in filling positions across government to advance political and policy objectives, the number of Senate-confirmed positions, along with the complexity of the appointment process, has resulted in a slowdown of confirmations and an increase in vacancies. This situation limits agency operations and reduces the president’s capacity to govern and the Senate’s power to hold officials accountable.
Using appointments data from the Political Appointee Tracker compiled by the Partnership for Public Service and The Washington Post along with expert analysis, this report highlights key trends in filling Senate-confirmed positions and in the nomination and confirmation process. In particular, our analysis reveals:
These trends generate serious barriers to government effectiveness, responsiveness and agility. The Senate, in collaboration with the executive branch, has occasionally taken steps to reduce the number of political appointees and make the confirmation process more efficient. However, the number of Senate-confirmed positions poses a daunting challenge for any president, often leading to vacancies that undermine the execution of responsibilities that Congress has established and the taxpayer’s fund.
This report offers seven potential approaches to streamline the political appointment process for those positions requiring Senate confirmation.
The report assesses when each of these approaches could be most useful and feasible, setting the stage for a reduction or rescoping of Senate-confirmed positions in favor of longer term, nonconfirmed or career alternatives while preserving the Senate’s constitutional role and oversight function.
While most of the federal government is composed of career civil servants, there are roughly 4,000 positions filled by political appointees selected by the president. Of those, about 1,200 require Senate confirmation. These roles are often critical to the executive branch’s effective functioning and include Cabinet secretaries, general counsels, chief financial officers, assistant secretaries and component heads. These individuals occupy positions at the top of the federal government and are responsible for implementing a president’s policy goals and agenda, although others occupy law enforcement, oversight and even part-time ceremonial roles.
Under the appointments clause of the Constitution,1 the president nominates, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, “Officers of the United States.” The appointments clause further provides that Congress by law may vest appointment of “inferior Officers” in the president, courts or heads of departments.
Presidentially appointed Senate-confirmed positions represent less than 1% of the federal workforce’s approximately 2 million permanent employees.2 Yet there are far more political jobs, confirmed or appointed, in the American government than in other developed countries.3 Since the middle of the 20th century, the number of presidential appointees4 in the federal government has almost doubled, and the confirmation process for those who require Senate approval has become more arduous, lengthy and politicized. These factors have led to an increase in delays setting up incoming administrations, a significant rise in leadership vacancies, and fiscal, transactional and performance costs to our government.
Government performance and effectiveness are harmed by this malfunctioning system. This report assesses the effect of the high number of Senate-confirmed positions across agencies and departments, exacerbated by the extensive confirmation process, the ongoing challenge and harm of vacancies, the direct and indirect costs of these trends, and the haphazard nature of creating Senate-confirmed positions.
Since 2001, the Partnership for Public Service has contributed to making government more effective and efficient. Collaborating with different stakeholders throughout government, the Partnership’s programs and activities center around the need for strong, capable leaders in government across political and career positions.
Recognizing this need, the Partnership has consistently sought to improve the appointment process. In 2011, the Partnership supported the Presidential Appointment Efficiency and Streamlining Act, which reduced the overall number of Senate-confirmed positions by 163. In 2016, the Partnership’s Center for Presidential Transition (the premier nonpartisan source of information and resources for presidential candidates and their teams), in collaboration with The Washington Post, launched the presidential appointee tracker. Additionally, the Partnership has issued research reports analyzing and identifying trends in the nomination and confirmation process.
Seeking to revitalize and reset the appointment process, this report offers seven potential solutions to enable qualified and accountable leaders to serve across government. A key factor will be to consider the reduction or the rescoping of Senate-confirmed positions in favor of longer term, nonconfirmed or career alternatives. This report assesses when each of these approaches could be most useful. Responsible application of these approaches would empower Congress and the executive branch to decrease the number of Senate-confirmed positions while remaining faithful to the appointments clause and preserving the Senate’s oversight function as well as the president’s ability to build an administration capable of advancing a policy agenda.
Table 1, current list of Senate-confirmed positions categorized in seven groups
The expansion of Senate-confirmed positions has been consistent across agencies over time. The appointments clause in the Constitution establishes that “officers” are to be appointed with the Senate’s advice and consent. The clause further provides that Congress by law may vest appointment of “inferior Officers” in the president, courts or heads of departments.
Under the appointments clause, when Congress creates new agencies and offices, it has the right to determine which positions within them will have a Senate-confirmed status. With the expansion of the federal government since the New Deal, Congress has created significantly more positions.5 Positions are hard to reform or eliminate, and the number of Senate-confirmed political appointees increased 59% between 1960 and 2016, from 779 to 1,237.6
When our federal government faces new issues and challenges, Congress frequently creates new programs and agencies to resolve these emerging situations, which leads to the creation7 of additional Senate-confirmed positions to manage these efforts.8 The creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2002, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board in 2007 and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in 2011 are all examples of this trend.
A second factor has been the increased role of federal agencies in policymaking. As Congress has delegated increasing amounts of policymaking authority to federal agencies, often it has instinctively created Senate-confirmed positions without considering whether the position rises to this level. Since 1960 there has been a significant increase in the number of both Senate-confirmed and nonconfirmed appointees in agencies that manage budgets, personnel and regulations, according to an analysis by political science professor David Lewis.9
Congress has previously attempted to decrease and streamline the number of Senate-confirmed positions. The Presidential Appointment Efficiency and Streamlining Act of 2011 converted 163 positions from Senate-confirmed status to presidential appointments. This included positions such as assistant secretaries for public affairs, legislative affairs and management, and technical positions in health, science and statistics. It also included a range of board and commission members.10 However, this reform did not halt the growth in Senate-confirmed roles, which increased from 1,212 in 2012 to 1,237 in 2016. Further, several roles that transitioned in some agencies, such as legislative affairs positions, were not transitioned in others.11
The growth in the number of Senate-confirmed positions, coupled with an increasingly comprehensive vetting process, has caused confirmation times to increase. The average Senate confirmation process now takes about twice as long than it did in the 1980s.12 During the Reagan administration, it took an average of 56 days for the Senate to confirm presidential nominations; during the Obama and Trump administrations, it took an average of 112 and 117 days, respectively.13 Following a similar trend, President Biden had the fewest number of Cabinet nominees confirmed on Inauguration Day in recent history.14
Confirmation times also have been exacerbated by an increasingly partisan process, best illustrated by the rising number of cloture votes on nominees (a cloture vote is a parliamentary procedure intended to end debate on a particular motion). For nominees, this motion is typically used to overcome filibusters by the opposition party. Cloture motions on nominees were nonexistent up until the 1980s.15 However, there has been an increase in cloture motions in recent years, particularly when different parties control the Senate and presidency.16 During the Clinton administration there were 16 cloture motions for executive branch nominees, in contrast, the Obama and Trump administration received 101 and 189 cloture motions respectively. Similarly, during the first terms of the Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama administrations, there were 49 cloture votes on judicial and executive nominees combined. In contrast, Obama’s second term had 148 cloture votes while the Trump administration experienced 369 cloture votes on judicial and executive nominees.
The lengthy confirmation process creates challenges for both presidential administrations and the Senate. A new administration must spend months or even years vetting, preparing and assisting nominees as they navigate the confirmation process. The Senate, in turn, must use more of its limited calendar time and staff resources to evaluate and vote on nominees. And the length and difficulty of vetting and confirmation processes may discourage people from seeking government office.17
Longer confirmations also lead to delays in setting up new administrations. Cabinet secretaries have maintained a relatively short initial average confirmation process due to their relevance and public nature, but sub-Cabinet positions take much longer to confirm.18
Longer confirmation times contribute to extended vacancies in key federal roles. According to Yale professor Christina Kinane, from 1977 to 2015, Senate positions without a confirmed appointee fluctuated between 10% and 40%.19 During each of the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, Senate-confirmed nominees spent about 165,000 cumulative days (452 years) mired in the confirmation process, an increase of roughly 17% from the Clinton administration and approximately 67% from the Reagan administration.20 Similarly, nominees spent about 80,000 days (219 years) in the process during Trump’s term. The short tenures of political appointees combined with these delays have resulted in frequent vacancies across Senate-confirmed positions. Vanderbilt professor David Lewis has estimated that, on average, in the first two years of the past three administrations, 30% of positions never even received a nomination.21
Beyond vacancies, the high number of positions requiring Senate confirmation and the lack of efficiency of the appointment process have provided an incentive to rely on acting officials across the government. All presidents have used acting officials to temporarily fill Senate-confirmed positions. However, what should be a stop-gap measure has become a more semi-permanent solution as the executive branch has increasingly relied on acting officials, often in response to the Senate’s slow and intricate confirmation process.
The Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998 generally governs when an acting official may perform the duties of a Senate-confirmed position on a temporary basis—without Senate confirmation—when the position is vacant. But this law has proven at times to be both confusing and ineffective in fulfilling its purpose of encouraging timely nominations by the White House. Administrations have used complex temporary titles and assumed authority with little public scrutiny.22 While presidents have used acting Cabinet officials during their first and last year, President Trump had more acting officials in his Cabinet during his first three years (27) than each of the previous five presidents had during their entire presidencies, according to professor Anne Joseph O'Connell of Stanford Law School.23
For positions that should be subject to advice and consent, acting officials avoid the Constitution’s appointment process while leading agencies with diminished influence among employees. Even though it is too early to evaluate the number of positions within the Biden administration without a nominee, out of 757 key positions requiring Senate confirmation, President Trump had 236 vacancies24 at the end of his term.25
During the Trump administration, prominent positions, including the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the controller for the Office of Management and Budget and the undersecretary for health of the Department of Veterans Affairs, remained without permanent Senate-confirmed leadership.26 And some vacancies have persisted since the Obama administration. Examples include the director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which has been vacant since 2015. New York Times reporting indicates that 15 years ago, the National Rifle Association successfully lobbied to make the director’s appointment subject to Senate confirmation—and it has subsequently helped block all but one nominee from taking office.27 Other positions with long-term vacancies include the assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Tax Division, which has been occupied by acting officials since 2014.
The difficulties associated with the confirmation process can be more damaging during a crisis. In 2020, during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of critical positions remained unfilled or without a nominee. For instance, the undersecretary for health at the Department of Veterans Affairs, a position in charge of the VA’s medical facility preparedness across the country, remained vacant. Similarly, at the Department of Homeland Security, the secretary, deputy secretary, undersecretary for management and key roles at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, along with positions at the Department of Health and Human Services, were filled by acting officials during the coronavirus preparation and response.28 On the international front, the U.S. Agency for International Development had no nominees for key positions29 relevant to the coordination of a global response to the pandemic.30
Beyond the delays and vacancies affecting the federal workforce, the current number of appointments and the pace at which they assume office also represent economic and performance costs to the federal government. But these costs are not routinely collated or publicly presented. One simple metric might be the unit cost of individual personnel compensation and benefits. Fewer political appointments could result in lower—or better aligned—budgets. A frequently cited estimate by the Congressional Budget Office suggests, for example, that a cap on the number of overall political appointees of 2,200 would result in savings of more than $82 million annually.31 This estimate also assumes that such positions would be completely eliminated, although in a realistic scenario many could be converted to career roles or savings could be reinvested in higher priority areas.
However, a more important direct fiscal impact is the hidden cost of high turnover in political appointee roles on agencies and the federal workforce. Senate-confirmed roles experience systematic high turnover rates compared to other positions.32 At minimum, agencies absorb cyclical opportunity costs for appointee onboarding as the appointees take time to get to know their agencies and roles. On average, approximately half of these Senate-confirmed vacancies are filled by interim appointees while half are left empty, suggesting additional transition costs in practice for temporarily held roles. Even confirmed appointees may struggle with immediate effectiveness.
According to political scientist David Lewis, appointees may have fewer relevant qualifications for specific expert jobs than career civil servant counterparts, such as niche subject-area expertise or public management skills. And their limited tenures may hinder their ability to plan for the long term or cultivate subject-matter expertise.33 Cutting off career opportunities for qualified civil servants by reserving select positions for political appointees also may impact retention of career civil servants. All of these factors have the potential to generate leadership vacuums and disrupt the continuity of programs and interagency cooperation while misaligning incentives.
Because Senate-confirmed federal positions generally are created individually and under distinct committee jurisdictions, the roles and span of authority of such appointments vary widely across agencies. There is no central plan or government-wide strategy for such appointments, and as a result confirmed positions and numbers vary widely across agencies.
The Presidential Appointment Efficiency and Streamlining Act of 2011 attempted to address these inconsistencies by transitioning several public affairs, legislative affairs and administrative roles to nonconfirmed positions; however, some still remain at a Senate-confirmed level. For example, among Cabinet agencies, 2 of 15 public affairs leads still requires Senate confirmation, while 13 of 15 legislative affairs roles require confirmation.
The ratio of political appointee to career staff also varies considerably across comparable agencies. For example, the Department of the Treasury has an 837:1 ratio of career to political appointees, while the Department of Labor is at an 89:1 ratio and the Department of Education a 33:1 ratio. Several important management functions found at every agency span Senate-confirmed, nonconfirmed political and career SES roles despite comparable responsibilities. Chief financial officers and chief information officers have notable inconsistencies despite their importance to predictable agency management. The trend follows a similar pattern with career staff to Senate-confirmed appointees; for example, the Department of Veterans Affairs has a 31,155:1 ratio of career staff to Senate-confirmed appointees, while the Department of Housing and Urban Development has a 517:1 ratio.
Chief financial officers play an essential role in managing federal government resources, guiding agency finances and strengthening the workforce and their customers’ needs. Currently, 14 of 24 federal CFOs are Senate-confirmed positions, while others are career positions. Senate-confirmed CFOs face additional challenges: They often are not prioritized for nomination, in part because such jobs are hard to fill; they are similarly given lower priority within the confirmation process. For the three decades since the Chief Financial Officers Act was enacted, the Senate has taken an average of 104.7 days to confirm CFOs, the third-longest average for jobs within these agencies.34 Managing finances and the workforce, among other administrative tasks, is key to the success of any agency, and the significant delays CFOs face reduce the efficiency of the workforce.
CIOs oversee technology spending, IT policy and strategic planning as well as information sharing, information security and privacy controls across government. Attempts to convert all CIOs to political appointees has previously been proposed without success.35 Currently, 2 of 24 federal CIOs36 are Senate-confirmed positions; the other 22 are divided between nonconfirmed political appointees and career senior executives. However, the status of CIOs ebbs and flows through presidential administrations, affecting the strategic management of technology across the federal government. The number and status of CIOs changes during every presidential administration, and after presidential transitions IT leadership vacancies often occur at several departments and agencies. Notably, most CIOs have had a median tenure of less than two years.37
Developing clear and consistent criteria for these positions could bring stability and continuity to agencies across government.
As Paul Light, professor at New York University, wrote in 2015 addressing the current appointment process: “The spirit of service is strong, but the process for entry is a mess.”
The current system for ensuring that qualified and accountable leaders are in place across the federal government has ample room for reform. Moreover, presidents may themselves be dismayed that a key tool of their political influence—leadership and staff appointments—is undermined by all the trends identified above.
To combat these trends, seven potential approaches have been identified for Congress and the executive branch to consider. Each approach factors in the merits and strengths of political appointments, the needs of federal agencies, the importance of the Senate’s responsibilities for advice and consent, and the core interests of presidential administrations. These approaches provide options and criteria for reform rather than comprehensive solutions, and they are subjective—different experts might apply them more aggressively or modestly across agencies.
Applied thoughtfully, these reforms could accelerate and sustain the process by which well-qualified leaders fill critical roles in government. Consistency within and across agencies will be a necessary parameter of success. But the haphazard application of these suggested criteria may instead undermine the authority of a new president or the Senate, or shortchange agencies of talented leaders. For a reform effort to be effective, it should carefully accommodate the interests of all stakeholders.
The following section outlines possible reform approaches and a series of considerations that should take into account.
To identify which Senate-confirmed positions to convert to nonconfirmed political appointee positions, it is important to respect the Senate’s constitutional responsibility to “advise and consent” on executive branch nominations, the relevance of positional parity and the span of authority associated with confirmed roles.
With these factors in mind, we have identified four parameters that could be used to assess when Senate-confirmed positions could be converted to political appointees:
On their own, these criteria may be insufficient to assess whether a Senate-confirmed position should be converted to a political appointment. Political trends and organizational deficits may suggest unique needs within an agency. However, these criteria serve as useful cues to distinguish between positions that necessitate direct Senate approval, and those that may be more flexible and could benefit from conversion.
Some Senate-confirmed positions have statutorily set terms of office. These positions may coincide with presidential election cycles, such as the director of the Office of Personnel Management, or may overlap with administrations like the director of the FBI. Fixed-term appointments also are common for members of boards and commissions. Typically, these positions are set for periods of four to seven years and often expire in a staggered manner.4243 Despite the term appointment, some can be removed by the president at any time for any reason.
An analysis of current Senate-confirmed positions suggests that positions with fixed-length terms tend to share certain characteristics, including stability.44 By identifying other Senate-confirmed positions that would benefit from these characteristics, we may be able to identify additional positions that could also be given a fixed-length term. The stability benefits associated with term positions, however, rely on them being consistently filled by qualified appointees who are capable of serving competently through and across administrations.
The types of positions that lend themselves to fixed terms may also be good subjects for holdover practices, with appointees remaining on the job until their replacement is confirmed. This could occur across administrations, for the short term or indefinitely. Some are already informally and consistently treated this way, including U.S. marshals. For example, the current director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis Collins, was appointed by President Obama and confirmed by the Senate in 2009. He was asked to remain in his position by both President Trump and President Biden.
By formally converting appropriate roles to term position (and monitoring their use) or otherwise encouraging holdovers, the Senate could encourage stability and expertise in critical roles while maintaining its advisory power and helping reduce its workload. Other positions filled by subject-matter experts in roles demanding Senate approval, such as undersecretary for health at the Department of Veterans Affairs, remained vacant during the Trump administration and could also benefit from this approach.
Stakeholders should consider fixed terms and holdover norms to be two separate but related solutions. The former provides transparent intent to the Senate, the executive branch, appointees and agencies; the latter allows flexibility but is a less clear and stable process and result.
Our analysis of current Senate-confirmed positions reveals two considerations that have led to the embrace of fixed-length terms or cross-administration holdovers. Additional existing positions should be evaluated against these considerations to see if they too would benefit from such a formal change or informal practice.
One additional criterion that might be considered for identifying which jobs could be converted to fixed terms of five or more years, or considered for holdover status, is the time it takes for the administration to nominate an individual for the position. Certain Senate-confirmed positions go unfilled for significantly longer periods of time than others.46 Instituting longer fixed terms to these appointments could reduce the frequency with which talent needs to be sourced, decreasing the consistency and longevity of position vacancies.
Another option available to streamline the confirmation and appointment process is to convert specific political jobs to career roles. Research focusing on agencies and the federal workforce has found that in some cases agencies and bureaus managed by Senate-confirmed appointed career officials have negatively affected agency performance.47 Several experts have published recommendations identifying which types of positions could be converted.
One of the more aggressive criteria suggests converting all Senate-confirmed positions to career status below secretary and deputy secretary levels who are not themselves agency administrators. This accounts for close to three-quarters of Senate-confirmed positions on the Executive Schedule. Proponents suggest that long-term commitment to program effectiveness and stability is critical for the functioning of these agencies, and career personnel would be most appropriate. A decrease in Senate-confirmed positions and the career professionalization could additionally eliminate several hundred Schedule C appointees who now serve as executive aides to these appointees.48
A more modest approach might convert Senate-confirmed positions at the program and bureau leader level (generally assistant secretaries or their equivalent, though not always or exclusively).
Filling these positions with career executives may induce officials to stay and build careers in the federal service without sacrificing political accountability, since presidential appointees at the head of agencies will continue to oversee careerist managers.
Another approach would be applying greater positional consistency across agencies, particularly among management roles where deep expertise of public management is necessary. As this report has highlighted, there is a lack of consistency across federal agencies among CIO and CFO positions. Shifting such roles to career leaders may lead to improved operational performance and lower turnover rates in positions that require stability and expertise not always found outside government careers.
Across the federal government, there are currently 150 full-time appointee positions on 38 executive branch boards and commissions for which the Senate provides advice and consent, and more than 200 additional part-time appointees. Though their responsibilities vary between regulatory, advisory and ceremonial, the main characteristic most commissions share is that they are independent executive branch bodies outside departments and agencies. The president appoints their members with the Senate’s advice and consent, and members usually serve fixed terms of office. Executive branch boards and commissions currently serve various functions within the federal government, ranging from controlling housing projects and protecting marine species to overseeing scholarship programs. Some of these commissions function as independent policy and regulatory agencies with broad responsibilities, such as the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Other executive branch commissions and boards execute a ceremonial or advisory role, such as the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation.49
The current number of commissions and boards with Senate-confirmed positions presents a significant challenge for the appointment process. It is estimated that for nominations confirmed to boards and commissions during the 115th Congress, despite use of the privileged calendar, 121 days elapsed between nominations and confirmations.50 Among commissions with a high number of Senate-confirmed positions are the National Endowment for the Humanities (23), the National Endowment for the Arts (19) and the Corporation for National and Community Service (17).51 In the case of advisory and ceremonial executive branch boards and commissions, some tend to hold a high number of Senate-confirmed positions that could be reduced, converted or subsumed by larger departments (with members instead appointed by the Senate-confirmed agency leaders).
There are three possible approaches to address the high number of Senate-confirmed positions on executive branch boards and commissions.
Within the past half-century, Congress and presidents have significantly increased layers of management and political positions in the federal workforce. Paul Light of New York University has noted that “in 1981, only one cabinet secretary had a chief of staff, in 2020 all 15 had one, similarly only one chief of staff had a deputy chief of staff in 1981 but 14 had one in 2020.”52 The layering of government affects the functioning of government and citizens’ access to services. Across many agencies, there are on average 83 layers between top leadership and essential workers.53 The number of layers in federal government limit accountability, affect and delay the response time across agencies and impede the functioning of government.
Identifying redundant and duplicate Senate-confirmed roles across agencies can be challenging. But some are obvious, such as the deputy secretary for management and resources and the undersecretary for management at the State Department—one of few agencies with two such deputies. The exercise of identifying such positions has the potential to eliminate and reduce the layers of government.
A second approach would be to identify and eliminate consistently vacant positions across agencies and departments. The cycle of agency appointments produces a considerable number of vacant offices; it’s estimated that after two years, a large number of positions don’t receive their first nominee.54 By analyzing the past three administrations, we have estimated that at least 40 positions have been continuously vacant since June 2016. If agencies have successfully navigated these years without Senate-confirmed appointees, the change of status of these positions (or, in some cases, their elimination) likely will not affect the operation of their organizations. Congress should carefully examine these long-term vacancies—especially those that span presidential administrations—and determine whether some of the positions could be converted to another type of appointee or eliminated.
Any effort at converting Senate-confirmed positions should consider the potential implications for Schedule C positions supporting Senate-confirmed roles. Though their responsibilities vary, these positions form the personal staffs of agency leaders, including chiefs of staff, special assistants, senior advisers and executive assistants. Cabinet appointees frequently recruit select personal and expert Schedule C staff members to support their complex roles and aid the administration of their agencies. However, such staff also support undersecretaries, assistant secretaries and deputy assistant secretaries, and perform roles that could be handled by career civil servants.
Any effort to reduce or convert Senate-confirmed roles could bring with it commensurate decrease in Schedule C staff if the converted or eliminated positions lose their personal staffs.
A more aggressive approach might be to limit the number of front office Schedule C staff altogether below the Cabinet level and requiring these roles to be filled by career personnel. Congress might fulfill this approach by instituting a cap or by legislatively restricting the role assignment of Schedule C personnel.
The intention of the Framers in establishing the appointments process was to allow presidents to staff administrations with the very best while limiting the power of the executive branch to install unsuitable candidates or use government positions for personal and political gain. This objective still has merit and should be preserved. Our government works best when it has a full team of capable, qualified and committed individuals serving in career positions and political appointments.
However, the current number of Senate-confirmed positions has created a logjam, hindering the ability of administrations to fill critical roles and undermining the effectiveness of the American government. It is only through cooperation across the executive and legislative branches that the current appointment process can be reformed from the unsustainable status quo.
The approaches described in this report are meant to start a conversation aimed at resetting the appointments process while maintaining its core principles and intent. We believe now is the moment to seriously pursue reform. Without it, our system will continue to struggle.
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1 Constitution of the United States, Article. 2, Section. 2, cl.2
2 Hill, Fiona. “Public Service and the Federal Government.” Brookings Institution, November 5, 2020. Retrieved from https://brook.gs/373ZZEe
3 “Why Is It So Hard for Joe Biden to Hire People?” The Economist, May 27, 2021. Retrieved from https://econ.st/3yapQGj
4 Most of the appointee data used in this report is based on appointee tracker databases from the Partnership for Public Service. Researchers at the Partnership follow presidential and congressional actions on approximately 800 top executive branch positions, a portion of the roughly 1,200 positions that require Senate confirmation. The tracker includes all full-time civilian positions in the executive branch that require Senate confirmation except for judges, marshals and U.S. attorneys. Military appointments and part-time positions requiring Senate confirmation are not included.
5 Plumer, Brad, “Does the Senate Really Need to Confirm 1,200 Executive Branch Jobs?” The Washington Post, April 28, 2019. Retrieved from https://wapo.st/3i4lDi2
6 David Lewis’s analysis of U.S. Congress, Policy and Supporting Positions, various years; and Partnership for Public Service analysis of U.S. Congress, Policy and Supporting Positions, various years.
7 The creation of additional layers of political and career management positions to our government’s leadership structure has also “thickened” the federal workforce. In 1961, John F. Kennedy inherited 451 positions; in 2017, Donald Trump inherited 3,265. From 1961 to 2016, the number of layers grew by 750%, and the number of leaders per layer grew by 625%. Light, Paul, “The True Size of Government.” The Volcker Alliance, October 2, 2017. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3l5M3BM
8 Lewis, David E., “The Contemporary Presidency: The Personnel Process in the Modern Presidency.” Presidential Studies Quarterly, 42 (3), 2012, pp. 577–596. doi:10.1111/j.1741-5705.2012.03993.x
9 “Between 1960 and 2008, the number of appointees in the Bureau of the Budget/Office of Management and Budget (budgets, regulatory review) increased from 11 to 37 appointees, while the number of appointees in the Civil Service Commission/Office of Personnel Management increased from 3 to 30.” Lewis, David E., “The Contemporary Presidency: The Personnel Process in the Modern Presidency.” Presidential Studies Quarterly, 42 (3), 2012, pp. 577–596. doi:10.1111/j.1741-5705.2012.03993.x
10 Presidential Appointment Efficiency and Streamlining Act of 2011 (2012). Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3zEbVJ6
11 David Lewis’s analysis of U.S. Congress, Policy and Supporting Positions, various years; and Partnership for Public Service analysis of U.S. Congress, Policy and Supporting Positions, various years.
12 “Senate Confirmation Process Slows to a Crawl.” Center for Presidential Transition, January 21, 2020. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3x7BkZW
14 Hitlin, Paul. “Senate Taking Longer To Confirm Biden’s Cabinet Than for Most Recent Presidents.” Center for Presidential Transition, Partnership for Public Service, 4 Feb. 2021, https://bit.ly/3f4nX6O
15 Beth, Richard S, et al, “Cloture Attempts on Nominations: Data and Historical Development Through November 20, 2013.” Congressional Research Service, September 28 2018. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3y8xi55
16 “Senate Confirmation Process Slows to a Crawl.” Center for Presidential Transition, January 21, 2020. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/2TCpDNc
17 Carey, Maeve P., “Presidential Appointments, the Senate’s Confirmation Process, and Changes Made in the 112th Congress.” Congressional Research Service, October 9, 2012. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3eYinm7
18 “Senate Traditionally Confirms First Cabinet Secretaries Within Days of Inauguration.” Center for Presidential Transition, December 4, 2020. https://bit.ly/2UTrJJg
19 Kinane, Christina M., “Control without Confirmation: The Politics of Vacancies in Presidential Appointments.” American Political Science Review, 115 (2), 2021, pp. 599–614. doi:10.1017/s000305542000115x
20 Partnership for Public Service analysis of U.S. Congress, Policy and Supporting Positions, 2021.
21 Lewis, David E., and Mark D. Richardson, “The Very Best People: President Trump and the Management of Executive Personnel.” Presidential Studies Quarterly, 51 (1), 2021, pp. 51–70. doi:10.1111/psq.12697
22 “The Replacements: Why and How ‘Acting’ Officials Are Making Senate Confirmation Obsolete.” Partnership for Public Service, September 23, 2020. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3i7HOE4
23 O’Connell, Anne Joseph, “Actings.” Columbia Law Review, 120 (3), 2020, pp. 613–728. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/26910475
24 As of October 26 of 2020
25 It is estimated that President Trump had 1,583 political vacancies at the end of his term, including jobs for Senate-confirmed roles and other political appointments, such as statutorily created appointments not requiring Senate confirmation. Ogrysko, Nicole. “At Some Agencies, Acting Leadership Often Outlasted Permanent Appointees Over Last 4 Years.” Federal News Network, January 28, 2021. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3ycAPPF
27 Thrush, Glenn, et al, “How the A.T.F., Key to Biden’s Gun Plan, Became an N.R.A. ‘Whipping Boy’.” The New York Times, June 18, 2021. Retrieved from nyti.ms/3edFGs8
28 Bergengruen, Vera, and Brian Bennett, “Trump Ramps Up Coronavirus Response But Key Vacancies Remain.” Time Magazine, February 28, 2020. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/2WlNfGN
29 Such as Assistant Administrator for Global Health; Associate Administrator for Relief, Response and Resilience; Assistant Administrator for Asia; and Associate Administrator for Strategy and Operations.
30 Similarly, the Department of State had no nominee for Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, along with more than two dozen ambassadorships with no nominees.
31 This number reflects 2021 dollars based on an original estimate conducted in 2001 and assumes that the average annual salary for the reduced political appointee positions would be on average $164,200. Ogrysko, Nicole, “Why Political Appointees Are Getting a Pay Raise and Most Career Feds, for Now, Aren’t.” Federal News Network, January 8, 2019. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/371jTzR
32 Lewis, David, et al, “Strengthening Administrative Leadership, Fixing the Appointment Process.” Memo to National Leaders, National Academy of Public Administration, 2012. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3f3Z0It
34 “Reforming the Role of Chief Financial Officers.” Center for Presidential Transition, January 5, 2021. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3y846uJ
35 Like early versions of the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA)
36 Boyd, Aaron, “CIO Roundup: Here Are the Government’s Top Tech Chiefs So Far.” Nextgov.com, April 14, 2021. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/2TEGvD9
37 Where’s the CIO? The role, responsibility and challenge for federal chief information officers in IT investment oversight and information management.” 108th Congress, 2004. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3yaiAKP
38 Carey, Maeve P., “Presidential Appointments, the Senate’s Confirmation Process, and Changes Made in the 112th Congress.” Congressional Research Service, October 9, 2012. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3f2g6Xr
39 Marchsteiner, Kathleen, “Presidential Appointments to Full-Time Positions on Regulatory and Other Collegial Boards and Commissions, 115th Congress.” Congressional Research Service, April 20, 2020. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3BOEHbW
40 Lewis, David E., and Mark D. Richardson, “The Very Best People: President Trump and the Management of Executive Personnel.” Presidential Studies Quarterly, 51 (1), 2021, pp. 51–70. doi:10.1111/psq.12697)
41 Hudak, John, “Appointments, Vacancies and Government IT: Reforming Personnel Data Systems.” Brookings, July 28, 2016. Retrieved from https://brook.gs/3iQPhXf
42 Congressional Research Service, Appointment and Confirmation of Executive Branch Leadership: An Overview (2015)
43 In recent administrations, politically appointed officials stay an average of 2.5 years. Several issues encourage short service, but two are noteworthy, the lack of express commitment to serving longer and inadequate training for the position.” Anne Joseph O’Connell, Memo #4: Decreasing Agency Vacancies, Memo to National Leaders.
44 According to a 1994 report from GAO, term-limited appointees generally serve longer in their positions than their indefinite-tenure counterparts. U.S. Government Accountability Office, Political Appointees: Turnover Rates in Executive Schedule Positions Requiring Senate Confirmation, April 21, 1994. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/3x2gxag
45 Examples include the Director of the Bureau of the Census and members of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority’s Board of Directors.
46 Due to some of the criteria mentioned above (e.g., require rare and difficult to source expertise).
47 Lewis, David E., “The Contemporary Presidency: The Personnel Process in the Modern Presidency.” Presidential Studies Quarterly, 42 (3), 2012, pp. 577–596. doi:10.1111/j.1741-5705.2012.03993.x
48 Cohen, David M., “Amateur Government: When Political Appointees Manage the Federal Bureaucracy.” Brookings, July 28, 2016. Retrieved from https://brook.gs/3zH2iJH
49 Marchsteiner, Kathleen, “Presidential Appointments to Full-Time Positions on Regulatory and Other Collegial Boards and Commissions, 115th Congress.” Congressional Research Service, April 20, 2020. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/2VfIhe6
51 Count based on the United States Government Policy and Supporting Positions (Plum Book) 2016.
52 Light, Paul C., “Federal Bloat Is at a 60-Year High.” Brookings Institution, November 3. 2020. https://brook.gs/2ULI0A3
54 Lewis, David E., and Mark D. Richardson, “The Very Best People: President Trump and the Management of Executive Personnel.” Presidential Studies Quarterly, 51 (1), 2021, pp. 51–70. doi:10.1111/psq.12697