Appointments

WHTP’s Useful Resources

  • Current Resource: Plum Book (currently, 2020)
  • Original Scholarly Research: The Nuclear Option Fizzled…again. A scholarly journal article on the effects of using the Senate’s “nuclear option” on judicial appointments, examining all instances of reforms since 2013. The results suggests that how leaders control the Senate’s policy agenda matters more than does the partisan polarization that all of the nuclear options aimed to fix.
    The Longer You Wait, The Longer It Takes. A scholarly journal article on the impact of transition planning, presidential initiative, and “stand-up critical” positions on the pace of appointments. Analyzing 3,000 nominations over the last 40 years, and within a complex empirical model invoking the effects of other standard variables predicting deliberations, including various measures of polarization. These critical, transition variables counteract the effect of polarization.
  • WHTP Summarizes Scholarly Knowledge: A WHTP Memo on Appointments Politics summarizes recent scholarship on appointments.
  • WHTP’s Ongoing Trackers: A description of WHTP’s Personnel Trackers (including a new one on the pace of deliberations) found here.

Summaries from Appointments Analyses At Day 90
(4/19/2021)

This page provides documents the pace of appointments in the current presidential transition and by comparison with predecessors in the modern appointments era (beginning with the Reagan presidency). See basic descriptions here.

Headlines

    • Backlogs: The size of the institutional pipelines suggest a possible normal standup, but Senate deliberations would have to shift into walking and chewing gum on appointments.
    • On Deliberations: The Senate has stood “normal” on its head. The Democratic Majority in the Senate is taking double and triple the time Senate’s normally take.
    • On Nominations: The Biden transition produced the best performance since transition records were kept, and their pace on nominations now could set a record at the 100 days mark.
    • On Confirmations: (and hence on filling policy leadership positions), the Biden administration remains stymied by a slow Senate response and its historically large backlog.
    • On Governing Critical Positions: (and hence on carrying out government responsibilities), the Biden administration remains slower than even the Trump stand-up. Most of that slow pace still reflects the disheveled transition but the Senate backlog is beginning to show.
    • On Gender: The Biden administration continues to far outpace their predecessors in placing women in important government positions, tripling the pace of previous GOP administrations and doubling the pace of Democratic administrations.

Pace of Nominations – rebounding to its earlier pace but still below the leaders.

This figure reports the record of nominations for the past six presidential administrations to provide a comparison with the Biden administration’s pace of nominations. The average administration (green solid line) now stands well below the Biden performance. Overall, the Biden team had the best early performance of the last 40 years. After a shade at day 50, the Biden record-setting performance during the transition period has now resumed. The pace of deliberations in the White House seems well ahead of the average, so the problem is finding people, which seems odd.

Pace of Confirmations – stymied

Poor and stalled out. The situation on confirmations remains below average and trending in the wrong direction. The earliest pace on confirmations set records but not in a good way. The average administration has filled about 30% more government positions as the Biden team. “The lack of Senate confirmed presidential appointees undermines changing policy and answering critical questions about the direction of government,” notes Heather Ba, an academic expert on appointments at the University of Missouri at Columbia and a WHTP expert. “It can leave an administration in a state of ‘policy drift’.”

Pace on the “Stand-Up Critical” Positions

From 2010 to 2012, the WHTP partnered with the National Commission on Reform of the Federal Appointments Process to inventory the entire Executive function and within it identify positions critical to carrying out the duties of the national executive. In 2020, WHTP re-inventoried the executive to update our assessments. In particular, that new inventory identified a number of inspectors general, adding them to the list, growing the inventory to 276 positions critical to fulfilling government responsibilities and hence critical to standing up the American executive function. In some cases, positions have fixed-terms and have occupants holding those terms so each administration’s stand up starts in a different place. For example, the 2017 Trump stand up started with 51 of the 276 positions already filled with fixed termed appointments, while the Biden team came to office with 38 positions filled. With confirmations, the Biden team now has stood up 25% of these critical jobs, whereas with those in place the Trump team had stood up 26% stood up. These are record setting, bad performances.

While the Biden pace on these positions mirrors closely the Trump record-setting, slow start, Biden has begun to pick up the pace. Biden has gotten 29 ctitical nominees confirmed (to Trump’s 21), and Biden has a much much larger backlog waiting on the Senate, (45 vs 17) so as the Senate begins to work, the Biden stand up should begin to spin up. Watch this space.

The Backlogs

While the backlog of nominees sent to the Senate but not yet confirmed stands at twice the average for the previous administrations, the White House pipeline is considerably slower than the average. The Senate backlog is historic — none worse. The White House pattern does not reflect the average for executive deliberations (see below) — the pace of vetting is considerably faster than the average. Instead the White House problem is about the volume of nominees. Here the White House is simply not producing a hefty (by comparison) cadre of nominees to consider. Only the Trump team did a worse job finding nominees.

Pace on Deliberations

The appointments process has two general stages: one for the Executive and one for the Senate. Each stage has two elements. In the Executive the process runs from the election day when the new President-elect and the new team take on the task of carrying through on the government’s responsibilities. The first step in that process focuses on finding that nominee and it ends with the declaration of a presidential “intent to nominate” someone to a position. The ITN begins the second Executive stage, vetting, when the Office of Government Ethics and the security agencies begin vetting a potential nominee, primarily checking their background and government records with what the nominee has told the administration. This stage ends when the President sends the nominee’s credentials to the Senate or when the administration (typically quietly) decides to withhold the already announced nominee. For a variety of statistical reasons, it is easier to combine the two Executive stages into a single measure for the Executive (pictured in blue in the graph).

The White House’s Turn: The Biden White House has been on track (compared to its predecessors) to identify and forward nominees to the Senate. The average administration takes about 27 days while the Biden team has taken 20, a discernible difference.

In the Senate receiving a nominee results in a referral to a committee of jurisdiction which starts the Senate’s vetting. And here things start to go off the rails. This first Senate stage (indicated with light tan on the graph) ends with a committee report to the full Senate or when the full Senate “discharges” its committee of further deliberations, which then starts a clock on how long the Senate goes before it makes a final and official decision (the dark tan bar).

The Senate’s Turn: The typical Senate has taken around 14 days to reach a decision on a nominee. The current Senate committees are taking 28 days or twice as long. The numbers are far worse when it comes to full Senate decisions. Here the current Senate is taking more than three times as long as the average to decide to confirm Biden’s nominees (15 days against an average of 4 days). “The Senate has been so slow,” notes WHTP Executive Director, Terry Sullivan, “that it has flipped the normal relationship in which the President’s people normally take longer than the Senators on nominations.” In the past 40 years no other Senate has taken longer then the administration to process a nomination.

What’s This Delay About? The typical wisdom on Senate delay highlights partisanship and the Senate’s myriad mechanisms for following “courtesy,” which infuses a trickle of partisan delay into the system. Recent scholarship on appointments by the White House Transition Project, however, has underscored the importance of the policy agenda in affecting both the pace of White House and Senate business in determining its deliberations on appointments. “We tend to consider appointments as a separate thing, set apart from the rest of Senate business,” notes Terry Sullivan, WHTP’s executive director and an expert on appointments, “but appointments are just part of the larger policy making process, so the pace of appointments significantly reflects what else is before the government.” That research concludes that the greater the demands on the Senate for policy making the less the time to spend on appointments. “In effect, the Senate can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.”

So the Senate workload has two kinds of consequences for appointments. First, more workload detracts from the time Senators have to concentrate on vetting and considering appointments.  Ninety days into a typical administration and the Senate would have just begun considering the president’s and the typical policy agenda. But for President Biden, the Senate has already wrestled with a presidential impeachment trial, an attempted coup, an ongoing public health disaster, an economic collapse mirroring the Great Depression, and passage of two historically massive spending programs. Delay on those grounds alone would be inevitable says the research.

Second, policy making increases the likelihood that Senators will use nominees as pawns in a completely unrelated game. For example, Texas Senator Ted Cruz (R) has already threatened to slowdown two Biden nominees for the State Department to highlight his own opposition to a gas pipeline deal between Russia and Germany, even though the Biden administration has already announced it opposed the same pipeline and had already placed sanctions on the Russian actors involved. The threat of delay on these nominations clearly has little to do with the two nominees by comparison with whatever it is Senator Cruz wants to promote.

In addition, the agenda can affect the decision process in the White House as well, delaying nominations to concentrate on policy making and a growing agenda along with essentially crisis management carrying out new initiatives. Since the inauguration, for example, the Biden White House has produced fewer new nominations as the average of his six predecessors: 82 to 95 respectively.

Pace on Gender

The Biden administration has done much more than any of its predecessors to fulfill a campaign promise to produce a government reflective of the American public. In particular and on gender, the Biden nominations have nearly doubled the pace of previous administrations, more than half of its nominees are female (53%). That’s double the average (24%). The average for GOP predecessors is 20%; for Democrats 31%.

For questions or commentary, contact: Terry Sullivan, WHTP, at sullivan@ibiblio.org or 919-593-2124


Appointments Pace Trackers – Description

Return to top

The White House Transition Project documents the pace at which a new administration fills out the American executive branch through its appointments power. WHTP tracks the pace of appointments in four ways.

A Focus on PAS Positions. First, we track 980 presidential appointments requiring Senate confirmation (known as “PAS” positions). These appointments include top administration positions in all the cabinet agencies (e.g., the Deputy Secretary for Commerce), the top positions in the independent regulatory agencies (e.g., member of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve), and the top positions in the myriad of government boards and commissions (e.g., member of the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board). WHTP tracks the most important ambassadorships (e.g., Israel, UK, NATO, Russia, China) but we do not track all ambassadors, US Marshals, or most federal attorneys, though all these also require Senate confirmation. Also, note, technically the largest group of PAS positions are uniformed military officers. We don’t track them either.

The Pace of Institutional Deliberations. Second, WHTP follows the vetting processes both in the Executive and the Senate, detailing how long each takes to move a nomination along. In the Executive, we track from the White House announcement of an “intent to nominate” and then compare that when the executive forwards nominee’s packet to the Senate. This period typically involves the pace of ethics and security screening. In the Senate we track how long a nomination stays in the relevant Senate committees and then how long the nomination remains on the Senate’s calendar leading to the floor decision on confirmation. Note, in the modern era, if the Senate votes, it confirms virtually all nominations. Administration “failures” either get withdrawn or they simply languish in committee.

Standing UP the Leadership on Critical Duties. Third, WHTP identifies and tracks positions critical to national responsibilities. Based on a collaboration with the National Commission to Reform the Federal Appointments Process, WHTP has identified 276 “time sensitive,” leadership positions. These positions include all the leadership in government agencies (i.e., Secretary, Deputy Secretary), national security (e.g., Director FBI, Assistant Treasury Secretary for Terrorist Financing), economic management (e.g., Deputy US Trade Representative), critical management positions (e.g., General Counsel, Department of Veterans Affairs), and those key to the management agenda (e.g., Deputy Director of OMB, Inspectors General). Successfully filling out these positions “stands up” the American executive.

Measuring the Pipeline of Nominations and Confirmations. While nominations move along the process from identification to vetting to nomination to consideration to confirmation, a nominee moves through the hands of executive and senate staff and decision-makers both in the White House and the Senate. Presidential Personnel identifies potential nominees and later turns those over to the White House Counsel and the security and ethics agencies to look into a nominee’s background. Meanwhile the Personnel Office moves on to the next challenge. In the Senate committees and staff take similar, early responsibilities and turn their deliberations over to the full Senate. So, the appointments process is a group nominees and decisions and a pipeline process. WHTP assesses the pipeline as well in two ways: 1) how many nominees have secured the President’s “intent to nominate” (as a measure of the backlog of nominees) and how many eventual nominees await a final Senate decision (as a measure of Senate backlog). We take the average in each as an assessment of the vitality of the Executive and Senate processes.