Appointees on the Barbie

May 1, 2000

Anyone who doubts that the presidential appointments process is on the verge of collapse need only read the results of a new survey of senior Reagan, Bush and Clinton appointees. Not only is the path into presidential service getting longer and more tortuous, it leads to more stressful jobs. It is one thing to ask citizens to suffer on the way to a cushy job with high public respect, but quite another to abuse them en route to some of the toughest, most important jobs in the world. Yet, that is exactly what the process does.

The evidence comes from the Presidential Appointee Initiative, a project of the Brookings Institution funded by a grant from the Philadelphia-based Pew Charitable Trusts, which I helped design. With the help of Virginia L. Thomas at the Heritage Foundation, I also helped write the research report on which this column is based. The initiative is designed to help the next administration’s appointees navigate the process, even as a bipartisan advisory board makes recommendations for reforming the process.

The 435 Senate-confirmed appointees who answered the survey did not spend a lot of time complaining, however. No matter how angry they were about their own experiences—and there was plenty of anger expressed—many said they would strongly recommend a presidential appointment to a good friend.

If they were being honest, those appointees would tell that friend to prepare for the worst. Today’s process could not be more inefficient, particularly when compared to that of the 1960s and 1970s. Half of the Johnson, Nixon, Carter and first-term Reagan appointees interviewed by the National Academy of Public Administration in 1984 reported getting into office in two months or less, while 43 percent said the financial disclosure process was not difficult.

Fifteen years later, more than half the Reagan, Bush and Clinton appointees reported it took more than five months to get into office, and only 23 percent describe the disclosure process as easy. They were more frustrated than their earlier peers at every stage of the process, from the President’s approval of their nomination to Senate confirmation. The only point at which frustrations were comparable was the FBI investigation. That is largely because the investigation process is still governed by the same unnecessarily detailed form.

Although all of the Reagan, Bush and Clinton appointees reported problems with the process, the differences are significant among administrations. If the process was merely frustrating under Reagan and Bush, it became a nightmare under Clinton. Delays skyrocketed as the Clinton administration wore on, in part because of the return of divided party control between the Senate and White House in 1995.

By itself, divided party control would have slightly increased delays, as it always has. But it coincided with high turnover in the White House Office of Presidential Personnel, and time-consuming background checks conducted in the wake of the ill-fated Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood nominations. The combination produced what can only be described as an appointments meltdown. Forty-four percent of the Clinton appointees reported delays of more than six months, compared with just 25 percent and 11 percent for the Bush and Reagan respondents respectively.

It is hardly surprising that the Clinton appointees singled out the Republican Senate for the delays. More than half said the Senate made the nomination process an ordeal, compared with roughly a third of their Bush and Reagan colleagues.

What is surprising is the degree to which the Clinton appointees blamed the White House. Two out of five Clinton appointees said the White House added to the ordeal, compared with roughly one out of five of their Bush and Reagan peers.

The Clinton appointees were particularly hard on the White House Office of Presidential Personnel, which has filled nearly 10,000 political jobs over the past eight years. Appointees gave the office low grades on being competent, responding quickly to questions, devoting enough time to their appointment, and caring whether they were confirmed. Almost half gave the office a D or F on staying in touch with them during the process, and the same number said they did not receive enough information about the process.

These problems will not leave with Clinton. The delays have been growing steadily since 1960, when John Kennedy’s top appointees were nominated and confirmed in just over two months. So have the frustrations. The next President will be lucky to have his top appointees in place by November, 10 months after the inauguration.

The first step toward fixing the appointment system is to admit that it is broken. The Founding Fathers expected presidents to make speedy nominations and the Senate to give its advice and consent—aye or nay—quickly. That was part of what Alexander Hamilton called a “government well executed.” Two hundred years later, neither branch is doing its job well. Unless the two branches come together soon to work out their differences, the next administration will still be unpacking when the term is ending.

Paul C. Light is the author of The New Public Service (Brookings Institution Press, 1999).