Recruiting Executive Branch Leaders: The Office of Presidential Personnel

Despite the demise of the spoils system about which Garfield was complaining, the demand for government jobs after each presidential election continues to be a hallmark of American politics. It took the assassination of President Garfield by one of the vultures, deranged office-seeker Charles Guiteau, to galvanize Congress to pass the Pendleton Act in 1883 establishing the merit system of civil service. But remaining atop the executive bureaucracy was and is a layer of political officers, a layer that has grown thicker in recent years

The Constitution vests the “executive power” in the president and commands that “the laws be faithfully executed.” To fulfill this responsibility each president appoints the major officers of the government. The government’s ability to carry out its primary functions depends crucially on capable civil servants, whose effectiveness is intimately tied to the quality of the leadership of the executive branch, that is, presidential appointments.

Each new president who comes to office appoints thousands of men and women to help lead the executive branch. While the career civil servants who work under their direction are recruited on a continual basis by the Office of Personnel Management and individual agencies, the leaders themselves are recruited by the White House Office of Presidential Personnel, which is formed anew by each president. The obligations of the OPP are threefold—to serve the nation by recruiting executive branch leaders, to serve the president by finding qualified loyalists, and to shepherd nominees through the sometimes treacherous appointment process.

Serving the Nation

Until a few decades ago presidents lacked the personal staff to control the process by which appointees were selected. In the 19th and first half of the 20th century, presidential appointments were dominated by the political parties. As presidents began to assert more personal control, they slowly increased the institutional capacity of the White House to recruit their own nominees for positions in the government and gradually superseded the dominance of the political parties.

The presidential recruitment function was transformed in the second half of the 20th century in four ways. First, an increasingly professionalized executive recruitment capacity replaced the political parties as the primary source of appointees. Second, this capacity, which began with one person in charge in the Truman administration, was gradually institutionalized as a regular component of the White House Office headed by an aide with the title of assistant to the president. Third, the reach of the office was extended not only to presidential appointments but also to what are technically agency head appointments (noncareer Senior Executive Service and Schedule C positions). And finally, the office grew from six people in the Kennedy administration to more than 100 at the beginning of the Reagan and Clinton administrations. Thus an institutionalized OPP is handling an increasing number of political appointments for the president.

The positions for which the OPP recruits are the most important in the executive branch: the cabinet and subcabinet, leaders of independent agencies, and regulatory commissioners. Together with ambassadors (185), U.S. attorneys (94), U.S. marshals (94), and others, the total number of presidential appointments requiring Senate confirmation is 1,125.

Additional lower-level political appointments are available to each administration to help implement its priorities. For example, noncareer appointments in the Senior Executive Service (created in 1978) can by law amount to 10 percent of the total career SES; today they number 720. Schedule C positions, about 200 when first created in 1953, now number 1,428. These latter two categories, technically made by cabinet secretaries and agency heads, have been controlled by the OPP since the Reagan administration. Though less important than presidential appointments, they place an added burden on the OPP, which must also advise the president on hundreds of part-time appointments, many to boards and commissions that may meet several times a year.

Given the growing number of political positions, along with the OPP’s increasing scope of authority, it is not surprising that the pace of appointments has slowed in the past four decades (see table 1).

Table 1: Length of
Appointment Process, As Reported by Appointees



1 or 2 months



3 or 4 months



5 or 6 months



More than 6 months



Source: Paul C. Light and
Virginia L. Thomas, The Merit and Reputation of an
(Presidential Appointee Initiative, 2000), p.8.
The number of appointees surveyed was 532 for 1964–84, 435 for

Serving the President

The primary task of the OPP—helping the president match the right nominee with the right position—is not simple. The personnel office must be ready to go the day after the election, so advance planning is crucial, but often neglected in the pressure of the campaign. The onslaught of office seekers begins immediately, and the OPP must be ready to handle the volume with some political sophistication. The delay in establishing the personnel recruitment process is one of the reasons that the 2000-01 transition has been particularly challenging. A process must be set up to strike the right balance between the president’s personal attention and the need to delegate much of the recruitment task to the OPP. Intense pressure for appointments from the presidential election campaign, Capitol Hill, interest groups, and the newly designated cabinet secretaries will buffet the process. Perhaps most important, the newly elected president’s policy agenda will not be fully implemented until most of the administration’s appointees are confirmed and in office.

Political patronage has a long and colorful history in the United States. The purposes of patronage appointments are to reward people for working on the campaign and for the political party and also to ensure that the government is led by people who are committed to the political philosophy and policy agenda of the president. As long as these purposes are consistent with putting qualified people in charge of government programs, there is no problem.

But from the perspective of the OPP, demands for patronage are frustrating. Pressures for appointments come from all sides: everybody, it seems, wants to ride the president’s coattails into Washington jobs. According to Pendleton James, President Reagan’s assistant for presidential personnel in 1981-82, “…being the head of presidential personnel is like being a traffic cop on a four-lane freeway. You have these Mack trucks bearing down on you at sixty miles an hour. They might be influential congressmen, senators, state committee chairmen, heads of special interest groups and lobbyists, friends of the president’s, all saying ‘I want Billy Smith to get that job.’” Thus the OPP has to deal with external pressures for appointments, but it also faces internal battles with cabinet secretaries over subcabinet appointments.

From the White House staff perspective, subcabinet positions are presidential appointments and should be controlled by the White House. But from the cabinet secretary’s perspective, these appointees will be part of his or her management team, and the secretary will be held accountable for the performance of the department, so substantial discretion should be delegated to department heads. Cabinet secretaries also suspect that the White House OPP is more concerned with repaying political debts than with the quality of subcabinet appointments.

Chase Untermeyer, President Bush’s director of presidential personnel, voiced the White House perspective when he suggested that the president introduce his assistant for presidential personnel to his newly appointed cabinet secretaries as someone who has “my complete confidence,” someone who “has been with me many years and knows the people who,…while you were in your condo in Palm Beach during the New Hampshire primary,…helped me get elected so you could become a cabinet secretary.” And, the president should conclude, he will depend on his assistant “to help me see that those people who helped us all get there are properly rewarded.”

The perspective of the cabinet secretary was expressed by Frank Carlucci, secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, whose advice to newly appointed cabinet secretaries was, “Spend most of your time at the outset focusing on the personnel system. Get your appointees in place, have your own political personnel person, because the first clash you will have is with the White House personnel office. And I don’t care whether it is a Republican or a Democrat…if you don’t get your own people in place, you are going to end up being a one-armed paper hanger.”

What the White House sees as a presidential prerogative and opportunity to reward loyal supporters of the president, the cabinet secretary sees as a chance to mold a management team. The OPP has to strike the right balance for each president.

Serving Presidential Nominees

While OPP’s most important duties are to the nation and the president, it also has obligations to the individual Americans who want to serve their country. U.S. citizens have a venerable tradition of serving in government for a few years and then returning to private life. The practice brings in people with new ideas and much energy to participate in governing their country. Many of these idealistic Americans, however, have recently had less than inspiring experiences with their nominations to high office.

When past and present presidential appointees were asked their general impressions of the nomination and confirmation process, 71 percent thought the process was “fair,” but many also had negative reactions. Twenty-three percent found it “embarrassing”; 40 percent “confusing”; and 47 percent a “necessary evil.” Most nominees began by seeing public service as an honor, but were later put off by the intrusiveness of the process in delving into their personal finances, the investigations into their backgrounds, and the time it takes to be confirmed.

Becoming a presidential appointee necessitates collecting much information for financial disclosure forms. Of appointees who served between 1984 and 1999, 32 percent found gathering the information difficult or very difficult (compared with 17 percent of appointees from 1964 to 1984). Completing the financial disclosure forms was so complicated that 25 percent of appointees had to spend between $1,000 and $10,000 for outside expert advice; 6 percent had to spend more than$10,000.

From surveys of past appointees, it is clear that the nomination and appointment process has room for improvement. Many problems cited by respondents, however, are not hard to alleviate. One theme that came through clearly is that, once contacted by the OPP, many potential nominees felt that they had been abandoned without sufficient information about how the process would unfold. Chase Untermeyer pointed out “the sad truth” that “often nominees feel abandoned.” He noted how important it is for a nominee “to have somebody holding his or her hand in getting through the process.” The OPP should allocate sufficient personnel to keeping nominees informed of the status of their nominations and helping them through the difficult aspects of disclosure forms and Senate confirmation.

Thus the dilemma of the modern White House personnel operation. Far larger and more professional than ever before, the number of appointees under its purview has grown so huge and the appointment process itself so procedurally thick and politically vexing that the OPP is often pushed to or beyond its limits in meeting the needs of the president, the appointees, and the country it is expected to serve.