PRESS RELEASE from the Center for American Progress

For Immediate Release

January 15, 2009


Jason Rahlan
REPORT: Let's Get It Started
What President-Elect Obama Can Learn from Previous Administrations in Making Political Appointments

By Anne Joseph O’Connell | January 15, 2009
Read the full report (pdf)
Download the executive summary (pdf)
Key recommendations

WASHINGTON, DC—If President-elect Obama follows the example of recent presidents, he will finalize his initial top picks for the cabinet and heads of other major agencies by Inauguration Day but will take much longer to select individuals for lower layers of the bureaucracy. Staffing these lower but still critical positions is remarkably challenging. It takes many months to get the first wave of appointees into the bureaucracy. Once filled, these positions do not stay occupied for long. And near the end of a term or administration, these political positions empty out yet again.

This report analyzes comprehensive new data on delays in the appointments process as well as appointee turnover in Senate-confirmed positions in executive agencies over the past five administrations. In particular, this analysis reveals:
Frequent and lengthy vacancies carry serious consequences for agency performance. Agencies without appointed leaders to set direction and initiate action will be less likely to address critical problems or quickly respond to emergencies. Less than a year before Hurricane Katrina, for example, more than one-third of FEMA’s policy positions were vacant. This absence of leadership may help explain FEMA’s poor response to the disaster in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

Acting officials are not seen as backed by the president. As a result, they generally lack sufficient authority to direct career civil servants. They may also be reluctant to initiate action for fear that it will not be supported by an eventual appointee. In this environment, careerists may become confused as to what they should do, which abets bureaucratic inertia.

Vacancies also undermine agency accountability and public trust. The legitimacy of the vast American administrative state rests, in large part, on its accountability to the president and to Congress through its appointed leadership. Frequent and lengthy vacancies may result in agencies that are less responsive to elected leaders and the public.
President-elect Obama can avoid these problems through an improved presidential appointments process. This report proposes six steps, summarized in the box below, that the Obama administration should take to decrease the number and length of such vacancies. These are simple and feasible reforms that, with one exception, are within the direct control of the White House. History shows that presidents often get stuck in the appointments process. By taking these steps, President-elect Obama can put himself in a stronger position to achieve his agenda.


1. The president should get executive agency officials to commit to serve for a full presidential term. It would be easy to ask applicants to make this commitment as part of President-elect Obama’s extensive vetting form.

2. All agency leaders should receive more comprehensive and institutionalized training, similar to training available to new members of Congress. If agency leaders perform better and face less hostile oversight, they will be more likely to serve longer.

3. Congress should increase agency leaders’ salary and benefits. Increased pay decreases the opportunity cost of entering public service for several years.

4. The president should pay more attention to lower-level appointments in executive agencies. Although lower-level appointments do not grab headlines, they will be instrumental in carrying out the president’s agenda and thus should be treated as presidential priorities.

5. The presidential personnel office should plan for future appointments after initial appointees take their positions. The personnel office should anticipate that each Senate-confirmed executive agency position will be filled, on average, by at least two people during a presidential term. This will allow the president to respond quickly when key appointees leave.

6. The president should ask political appointees in federal agencies to provide four weeks notice of resignation. This notice would allow the presidential personnel office to start actively vetting individuals for appointment before the presiding office holder departs.

Read the full report (pdf)

Download the executive summary (pdf)

The Center for American Progress is a nonpartisan research and educational institute dedicated to promoting a strong, just and free America that ensures opportunity for all. We believe that Americans are bound together by a common commitment to these values and we aspire to ensure that our national policies reflect these values. We work to find progressive and pragmatic solutions to significant domestic and international problems and develop policy proposals that foster a government that is "of the people, by the people, and for the people."