Posts Tagged ‘Presidential Appointees’

Obama Appointees: Not Yet Halfway There

August 24, 2009

“Seven months into his presidency, fewer than half of his top appointees are in place advancing his agenda,” notes Peter Baker in a New York Times story, “Obama’s Team Is Lacking Most of Its Top Players.”

He goes on to say: “Of more than 500 senior policymaking positions requiring Senate confirmation, just 43 percent have been filled. . . . ”  He notes that Obama is trying to fix the financial markets but has no assistant secretary for financial markets.  He is fighting two wars but has no secretary of the Army, and is holding a summit on nuclear nonproliferation but has no assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation.

Dr. Terry Sullivan, executive director of the White House Transition Project, told Baker “If you are running G.M. without half your senior executives in place, are you worried? I’d say your stockholders would be going nuts.”

Baker also describes how there is more progress in putting officials in place than in other recent administrations and how the finger-pointing for the slow pace is “being freely passed around” between the executive and legislative branches.  The White House personnel office offers a higher count of appointees; other sources (such as the Washington Post’s Head Count website) offer lower counts, depending on what positions are included or excluded from the counting.

In a separate story, Chris Dorobek describes how the confirmation of Martha Johnson as administrator of the General Services Administration is being held up in the Senate.  He offers several reasons that are bipartisan in nature:  Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) is mad at GSA for discouraging government conferences in resort locations, like his home state city of Las Vegas, and Senator Kit Bond (R-MO) is blocking action because he wants a federal office building built in Kansas City. . . . meanwhile GSA has no top leader while the agency is facing an historic challenge to effectively manage  a 1,100 percent increase in its spending for the coming year under the Recovery Act.


Status of Political Appointments: June 2009

June 17, 2009

People have been asking me why I’m still doing a transition blog:  “Isn’t the transition over?”  Well, no.

It’s five months into the Obama Administration and according to the Washington Post’s Head Count, only 23 percent (146) of the top 492 jobs have been filled.  There’s yet to be an orientation of new incoming appointees, either.  Just last week GSA identified the Hay Group to organize and run the orientation.  This may not have been on the fast track in part because there wasn’t a critical mass of appointees in place to orient!  And the President’s Management Council – largely comprised of departmental deputy secretaries – hasn’t convened yet (to my knowledge) because there isn’t a quorum of deputy secretaries.

When visitors from foreign government come through our office asking about the transition progress of the new Obama Administration, I try to explain this to them.  They seem baffled.  How can the U.S. Government be fighting two wars, address a major economic crisis, pursue healthcare reform, combat climate change, and have less than a quarter of its top government executives in place?

I explain how Don Gips, the head of the president’s selection and appointment process, and his deputy, David Jacobson, have now both been selected for appointments as ambassadors.  These critical vacancies have the potential to slow the selection process.

I also explain how top level appointees need to be confirmed by the Senate.  I also share with them how this process isn’t always based on assessing the qualifications of the appointees, either.  For example, the hardcopy version of this week’s Federal Times notes that Senate floor votes on at least 25 nominees are being held up by some Republicans because they are miffed that the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Sonya Sotomayor is scheduled for mid-July, which is sooner than they would like.  This hold up includes positions such as the chief lawyer for the State Department, an undersecretary for Homeland Security, and I guess Jeff Zients as well, whose nomination was voted out of committee a few days ago.

I get a blank look from these foreign visitors.  I just shrug.  I can’t explain it either!  But they better understand why more power and authority is being centralized in the White House, where most appointees do not need to be confirmed.  There, positions have been filled quickly and they are able to move forward on the president’s agenda.

Fixing the Nomination and Confirmation Process: Part II

June 19, 2008

John Kamesnsky, Senior Fellow, IBM Center for The Business of Government This is the second entry in a two-part review of the federal appointee Nomination and Confirmation Process.


 What’s the Process That Needs Fixed?

 First, there’s the nomination process.  After someone is selected by the White House personnel office (or the president-elect’s transition team), they have a number of forms to complete.   Dr. Alvin Felzenberg notes: “The typical appointee must complete a minimum of three forms: SF-278, a financial disclosure statement; SF-86, a form that begins an FBI background investigation; and the White House Personal Data Statement Questionnaire. Although the White House and FBI are free to modify their forms, information on the financial disclosure form is required by statute.”  The nominee’s information is reviewed by the White House counsel, the FBI, the IRS, and the Office of Government Ethics.


 Paul Light says that there are about 60 pages of forms with about 240 questions, many overlapping.  Each of the different Senate committees each has its own forms to fill out.   Appointees who need national security clearances have additional forms to complete, as well.  Some of the forms require a typewriter to be completed; others must be hand-written because, according to Light, the White House personnel office rejects typed or computer-generated versions.  Light says that about half of the delay in the overall nomination-confirmation process is due to the Executive Branch. 


Once nominated, then there is the Senate confirmation process.  If there is no controversy, sometimes the delay is in scheduling a hearing; other times, it is the press of business of the committee or the full Senate.  And other times, appointees are held hostage pending resolution of a policy issue that is unrelated to the individuals being confirmed.  According to the Washington Post, in May 2008 there were 200 appointments awaiting confirmation. 


What Action Has Been Taken? 


As I mentioned in my August blog entry on this topic, the last concerted effort to reform the process was in 2000 when the Brookings Institution supported the Presidential Appointee Initiative.  Unfortunately, the website from this 4-year, $3.9 million project is no longer active; it used to have valuable resources, such as an appointee survivor’s guide!  But the project leaders wrote books that are available.  The project was led by Dr. Light.  Dr. G. Calvin MacKenzie, an academic specialist in the topic, was a senior advisor to the project.  Each wrote a book about their research findings.


Dr. Light’s 2000 research project included interviews with hundreds of past appointees about their experience.  Based on the research, Dr. MacKenzie wrote a book,” Innocent Until Nominated: The Breakdown of the Presidential Appointments Process.”  


The research project did generate some action.  In late 2000, Congress required the Office of Government Ethics to prepare a report identifying ways to simplify the financial reporting process that appointees undergo.  Its mid-2001 report identified both administrative as well as legislative fixes.


The Brookings Presidential Appointee Initiative also convened a bipartisan panel to develop recommendations.  In early 2001 it offered 11 specific actions in its report:


§ Create a permanent Office of Presidential Personnel in the Executive Office of the President.

§ Simplify and standardize the information-gathering forms used in the presidential appointments process, and develop and maintain online, interactive access to all such forms and questionnaires for persons going through the appointments process.

§ Reduce the number of positions requiring FBI full-field investigations.

§ Undertake a comprehensive review of the ethics requirements imposed on political appointees, with the goal of striking a balance between concerns for the integrity of those who serve and the need to eliminate intrusive or complex disclosure requirements.

§ Ensure annual changes in executive-level salaries equal to changes in the Consumer Price Index.

§ Reduce the number of positions requiring Senate confirmation.

§ Limit the imposition of “holds” by all Senators to a total of no more than 14 days.

§ Require Senate confirmation votes within 45 days after receipt of a nomination.

§ Allow nominations to be reported out of their respective Senate committee without a hearing upon the concurrence of a majority of committee members of each party.

§ Reduce the number and layers of political appointees by one-third.

§ Grant the president renewed executive reorganization authority to de-layer senior management levels of all executive departments and agencies.


Senate hearings were held in early 2001 on the results of the bipartisan panel and the OGE report.  In late 2001 legislation was drafted.  The bill was S.1811.   Hearings were held again in early 2002 and the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee reported out legislation to the full Senate.  The legislation died there.  The Brookings project closed its doors in 2003.   Now it’s 2008.


So what’s the next step?  Do you have any friends in high places that want to help the next president be successful?