February 20, 2024

Layered Leadership

Examining How Political Appointments Stack Up at Federal Agencies

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The number of positions in executive branch agencies that are subject to Senate confirmation has grown by nearly 60% since 1960. One consequence of this growth over time has been the formation of layers of Senate-confirmed political appointees within Cabinet departments. The phrase “layering” refers to the existence of several levels of political appointee oversight over agency offices and bureaus. For example, in the Department of Energy, there are typically four layers of political appointee oversight over a bureau or office, including the secretary, deputy secretary, an undersecretary, and a director or assistant secretary.

Multiple layers of managerial oversight can introduce redundancy and reduce clarity about roles and responsibilities within agencies. Additionally, each added level increases the number of positions for which presidents must make nominations and the Senate must review. The result is often long-term vacancies in these positions, as both the White House and the Senate are strained to process the growing number of political appointees requiring confirmation.

Our analysis shows that:

There are five major Cabinet departments that have either four or five levels of Senate-confirmed appointees managing agency offices and bureaus.
Nomination and confirmation delays within these departments increase for each level of appointee. On average, the top two levels of appointees, secretaries and deputy secretaries, take only 18 and 67 days respectively until confirmation. By comparison, appointees at the next level down take an average of 350 days until confirmation and levels below take over 400 days. This leaves many of the positions closest to agency operations vacant for more than a year into an administration.
The number of individuals added to the management hierarchy has increased over time, with new positions added to the chain of command at levels three, four and five in the departmental hierarchy of the Departments of Treasury, Defense and State (e.g., undersecretaries, deputy undersecretaries, and assistant secretaries or directors). For example, those agencies have added one, three and five assistant secretary positions respectively since 1992.


While the people in these positions perform complex, critical responsibilities, it is less clear that requiring all these positions to be confirmed by the Senate – and the resulting delays and vacancies – benefits presidents, federal agencies, individual appointees or even the Senate itself. More importantly, the long-term vacancies are a disservice to the public.

Overview by Department


To understand the growing layers of government management, it is helpful to look at an example of the hierarchical leadership structure of Cabinet departments. For instance, in the Department of Defense, it is common for a bureau or office to have as many as five levels of Senate-confirmed political appointees. Below is an example of the organizational structure that falls under the undersecretary of Defense for acquisition and sustainment, the individual in charge of ensuring the quick and cost-effective delivery and sustainment of secure, resilient and preeminent capabilities to Department of Defense personnel and international partners. The seven offices or bureaus overseen by the assistant secretary for acquisition are also supervised by the deputy undersecretary for acquisition and sustainment, the undersecretary for acquisition and sustainment, the deputy secretary and the secretary.

Example of Layering in the Department of Defense



Layering in Cabinet Departments


The Department of Defense is the largest federal agency and has the most levels in its chain of command of any Cabinet department, with five layers of Senate-confirmed political appointees. The fifth level is comprised of 17 assistant secretaries and directors who report to a deputy undersecretary. The Department of Defense has even more complexity when considering the Senate-confirmed positions at the Departments of the Air Force, Army and Navy. However, since those departments are often thought of as separate entities within the Department of Defense, they are not included in this analysis.

The other four Cabinet departments with the most layering, Commerce, Energy, State and Treasury, have four levels of Senate-confirmed political appointees. The Department of State has the largest number of Senate-confirmed positions among the group, with 26 Senate-confirmed officials at the fourth level, excluding ambassadors. In these departments, the fourth level of officials are overseen by an undersecretary.


Number of Senate-confirmed Positions in Each Layer for Five Cabinet Departments with the Most Layering


Department Layer 1 Layer 2 Layer 3 Layer 4 Layer 5 Total
State (excludes ambassadors) 1 2 10 26 0 39
Defense 1 1 10 6 17 35
Energy 1 1 12 9 0 23
Commerce 1 1 12 8 0 22
Treasury 1 1 11 9 0 22

Appointment Delay Across Layers


Increasing the number of confirmed positions in the chain of command presents a challenge to presidents seeking to fill positions quickly. To better understand how presidents can fill out their teams, we assessed appointment delays during the Biden administration across each level. We examined nomination delay (the time it takes the president from Inauguration Day to submit a nomination to the Senate), confirmation delay (the time it takes the Senate to confirm a nominee from the time the president submitted the nomination), and time to confirmation (the time it takes from Inauguration Day to Senate confirmation).


Average nomination and confirmation delays increase for each successive layer


While President Biden’s nominees for secretary and deputy secretary in these five departments were mostly confirmed within about two months of Inauguration Day, each successive level took much longer to fill. On average, it took nearly a year for the third level of political appointees to be confirmed and well over a year for levels four and five. For example, the assistant secretary of Defense for manpower and reserve affairs has yet to be filled with a Senate-confirmed appointee, despite Biden making a nomination within the first 100 days of his administration. Additionally, the chief counsel for the Internal Revenue Service remains vacant three years into the Biden administration, largely driven by the president taking 867 days to nominate someone to the position. As these examples highlight, extended times to confirmation are due to both increasing timelines for the president to make a nomination and increasing confirmation timelines in the Senate. As a result, many of the positions closest to agency operations are vacant or occupied by an acting official for lengthy periods. No matter how much energy and experience acting officials bring to a role, they may not feel empowered to make major decisions and legal challenges can arise when they do. Furthermore, employee engagement scores suggest that turnover and uncertainty can negatively impact workforce morale.1


Average Appointment Delays During the Biden Administration for Senate-confirmed Positions in Five Cabinet Departments with the Most Layering2


Layer Time from inauguration to nomination (days) Time from nomination to confirmation (days) Total time to confirm (days)
Layer 1 (secretary) 0 18.6 18
Layer 2 (deputy secretary) 8 58.5 66.5
Layer 3 (undersecretaries, general counsel, certain directors and assistant secretaries) 190.4 162.7 349.7
Layer 4 (deputy undersecretaries, directors and assistant secretaries) 214.2 216.2 413
Layer 5 (directors and assistant secretaries) 253.1 186 404.5


Note: Data updated through Feb. 7, 2024. Data from the Departments of Commerce, Defense, Energy, State and Treasury. Nomination delay is the time it takes the president from Inauguration Day to submit a nomination to the Senate. Confirmation delay is the time it takes the Senate to confirm a nominee from the time the president submitted the nomination. Time to confirmation is the time it takes from Inauguration Day to Senate confirmation.

Growth in Layers Over Time


To understand the growth in the number of management jobs over time, we compared agency positions from a Congressional Research Service report on Senate-confirmed positions from 1992 and the Senate-confirmed positions today. We found that in the Departments of Defense, State and Treasury, there was significant growth in the number of assistant secretaries (level 4 or 5), deputy undersecretaries (level 4) and undersecretaries (level 3).

The Departments of Defense, State and Treasury have added 21 positions at the levels of undersecretary, deputy undersecretary, and assistant secretary since 1992.


Department Growth in undersecretaries Growth in deputy undersecretaries Growth in assistant secretaries
Defense +4 +5 +3
State +2 NA +5
Treasury +1 NA +1


One example of growth occurred through the fiscal 2017 and 2018 National Defense Authorization Acts. In the fiscal 2017 NDAA, Congress split the prior Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics into two new offices: the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment and the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. In the following NDAA in fiscal 2018, Congress split the original deputy undersecretary role into two positions, one for each of the new offices. This example demonstrates how reorganizations with worthy goals – such as providing greater capacity within and oversight over the distinct policy areas of a previous office – can multiply the positions requiring Senate confirmation over time.

The responsibilities held by these agencies have only grown in complexity over time, and there is no doubt that these agencies need experienced, senior officials to fulfill those responsibilities. It is less clear, however, that each layer of these positions need Senate confirmation if the Senate can exercise its oversight function over at least the top two layers of leadership that oversee the remainder of the team.


Added layers of positions subject to Senate confirmation further burden an already strained appointments process. As a result, important positions that Congress has created and assigned significant responsibilities too often experience leadership delays because of the confirmation process. While this review focuses on the agencies with the most Senate-confirmed positions arrayed across the greatest number of layers, the question is relevant to every department and agency. Given the real delays and the importance of fulfilling an agency’s responsibilities well, does requiring Senate confirmation remain necessary and appropriate for each position if they are already overseen by at least two layers of Senate-confirmed leadership?

To increase accountability, reduce redundancy and lessen the burden on presidents and the Senate, the simplest solution is for the Senate to reduce the number of positions requiring confirmation. Rather than reducing Senate oversight, this approach would allow the Senate to better focus its limited time on the senior officials responsible for a range of activities and personnel beneath them. This analysis suggests certain types of positions most in need of review:

Congress should consider making the middle level of management in Cabinet departments in between the secretary and the assistant secretary or director level, such as deputyundersecretaries, into non-confirmed political appointments or career executive appointments. It took President Biden’s nominees an average of 505 days to assume the six deputy undersecretary positions in the Department of Defense. Congress’ oversight function is more easily conducted when appointees and career officials are in place, rather than when long-term vacancies occur.
Congress also should consider removing the confirmation requirement at the bottom layer for assistant secretaries and directors serving at the program or bureau level. These positions often go unfilled for much of the president’s first year or more in office. Moving into the fourth year of the Biden administration, nine of the 68 positions in the bottom level of the five Cabinet departments examined still did not have a nominee confirmed since the beginning of the administration.4 Converting these positions to non-Senate-confirmed appointments would allow the president to fill them more quickly, while still ensuring there are multiple levels of Senate-confirmed oversight above each position.


Without reform, the Senate confirmation process will remain overburdened with layer after layer of Senate-confirmed positions to process, and agencies will be left with persistent leadership vacancies. Federal agencies need these leaders in place to best perform key functions for the people they serve and for Congress to conduct rigorous agency oversight.

  • 2. For comparability, the data does not include positions that had a Senate-confirmed holdover from the Trump administration or positions that were created midway through the Biden administration.
Project Team



Sasha Blachman
Associate Manager


Valerie Smith Boyd
Director, Center for Presidential Transition


Bob Cohen
Senior Writer and Editor


Troy Cribb
Director of Policy


Paul Hitlin
Senior Manager, Center for Presidential Transition


Jenny Mattingley
Vice President of Government Affairs


Chris Piper


Dylan Torres