News Release

Survey Finds that the Public Lacks Confidence in Presidential Appointments

September 6, 2001

Americans are deeply cynical about the process that leads to senior political appointments, as well as the quality and motivations of those who receive them, according to a new study released today by the Brookings Institution’s Presidential Appointee Initiative.

Most Americans believe that today’s presidential appointees are motivated more by personal ambition than the public good, and can thank large campaign contributions—rather than qualifications—for their positions in government.

The survey found that only 18% of Americans think that the most qualified people are selected as appointees. Four times as many (72%) believe people are selected because they share the president’s political beliefs and/or played a role in his campaign, and 85% think campaign contributions play a substantial role in determining who is selected. When asked how much a person needs to contribute to a campaign to be considered for an appointment, more than half of Americans (54%) estimate that it would take a donation greater than $5,000, and only 8% think a person does not need to contribute at all to be in the running for a high-level position.

“Americans have lost faith in the appointments process, and in the motives of those who are appointed to serve in government,” said Paul C. Light, senior adviser to The Presidential Appointee Initiative and Vice President of Governmental Studies at the Brookings Institution. “It is hard enough to be a presidential appointee without this kind of persistent cynicism.”

Americans don’t believe that presidential appointees are motivated solely by personal or political ambition. Sixty percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of presidential appointees, and three-fourths of the public think that these public servants are motivated by the chance to make America a better place and by the opportunity to make a difference. But nearly nine in ten Americans also feel appointees are driven by the desire to have influence and move ahead professionally.

“A more visible emphasis on the qualifications of the candidates a president nominates, rather than their political connections or their campaign donations, may be the simple key to reinvigorating the public’s trust in appointees,” said Judith M. Labiner, the author of the survey report and Deputy Director of the Center for Public Service at the Brookings Institution.

Campaign Contributions

The Presidential Appointee Initiative also examined the campaign contributions of the first 320 announced Cabinet and sub-Cabinet appointees in the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations (excluding ambassadorial and judicial appointees). The percentage of appointees who made contributions grew little between the 1992 and 2000 election cycles, but the average size of appointees’ contributions increased by almost 60%. Overall, more than half of the 640 appointees in the analysis had made contributions to candidates Clinton and Bush. More than 30% of the donors made contributions of $5,000 or more, while 15% made contributions of $10,000 or more.

Overall contribution amounts by appointees also increased between the 1992 and 2000 election cycles. The first 320 Clinton appointees contributed $811,616 during the 1992 campaign cycle, while the first 320 nominees announced by Bush contributed $1,521,049 during the 2000 campaign cycle—an increase of more than 85% in eight years. Soft money contributions accounted for much of that increase. Clinton appointees contributed $411,398 in soft money during the 1992 cycle, while Bush appointees contributed $959,972 in soft money during the 2000 cycle—an increase of 133% between 1992 and 2000.

While Bush appointees did make higher average contributions ($8,545) in absolute terms than Clinton appointees ($5,203), their contributions actually account for a smaller fraction of all campaign spending in the 2000 election cycle. Bush appointee donations accounted for 0.11% of all hard and soft money donations in the 2000 election cycle, compared to Clinton appointee donations, which accounted for 0.13% of all hard and soft money donations in the 1992 election cycle. “Presidential appointees account for only the tiniest fraction of contributions given in the 1992 and 2000 election cycles,” said Light.

Survey Methodology and Project Background

The survey is based on a nationwide, representative telephone survey of 1,003 adults living in continental United State households. The survey was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates (PRSA) for the Brookings Institution’s Presidential Appointee Initiative. Interviewing occurred between June 18 and July 18, 2001. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points. Information on campaign contributions is based on data from the Federal Elections Commission and was compiled by Michael Hafken, Research Analyst with The Presidential Appointee Initiative and co-author of the campaign finance fact sheet.

The Brookings Institution established The Presidential Appointee Initiative in 1999 with funding from The Pew Charitable Trusts. The initiative is working to encourage talented citizens to seek and accept presidential appointments and to build support for reforms that will simplify and expedite future appointments. The Initiative has published A Survivor’s Guide for Presidential Nominees, a step-by-step primer for nominees navigating the appointments process. It began issuing a weekly countdown this past spring on progress being made to fill nearly 500 Senate-confirmed positions in the Bush administration.

The initiative is supported by a distinguished advisory board chaired by Franklin D. Raines, Chairman and CEO of Fannie Mae and former Director of the Office of Management and Budget. To learn more about The Presidential Appointee Initiative, view its “Confirmation Countdown,” or order copies of its research studies and publications, visit

Editors’ Note: For interview requests with Paul C. Light, Vice President and Director of Governmental Studies at the Brookings Institution, and Senior Adviser to The Presidential Appointee Initiative, Judith M. Labiner, author of the survey report and Deputy Director of the Center for Public Service at the Brookings Institution, or G. Calvin Mackenzie, Goldfarb Family Distinguished Professor of American Government at Colby College, please contact Anna Gallagher at (202) 496-1330 or or Gina Russo at (202) 797-6405, or

A Brookings Project Funded By The Pew Charitable Trusts

About Brookings

The Brookings Institution is a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. Our mission is to conduct in-depth, nonpartisan research to improve policy and governance at local, national, and global levels.