PRESS RELEASE from the Center for American Progress
For Immediate Release
January 15, 2009
REPORT: Let's Get It
By Anne Joseph O’Connell | January 15, 2009
President-Elect Obama Can Learn from Previous Administrations in Making
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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.
- Presidents take many months to fill Senate-confirmed
positions in executive agencies at the start of their administrations.
President Clinton took the longest of the past four presidents, at an
average of 267 days to fill Senate-confirmed agency positions. He is
followed by President George W. Bush at 242 days, President Reagan at
194 days, and President George H.W. Bush at 163 days.
- Presidents fill the highest positions in cabinet departments
relatively quickly when they take office, but staff lower-level
positions in cabinet departments and other executive agencies much more
slowly. It took President Clinton an average of 457 days to fill deputy
agency head positions, for example, while it took President George W.
Bush an average of 422 days to fill technical positions.
- Executive agency positions were vacant an average of 25
percent of the time over the past five administrations. The percentage
of time that Senate-confirmed positions were not filled with appointees
from 1979 to 2003 ranged from nearly 12 percent in 1990 and 1994 to
approximately 50 percent in 1992 and 2000. The percentage of time a
position was vacant was highest in the final year of each
administration and was greater when party control of the White House
changed. It was also highest in the final year of each four-year term.
- It typically takes presidents far longer to nominate
executive agency leaders than for the Senate to confirm them. Although
presidents often complain about the length of the confirmation process,
the nomination process actually accounts for more delay in filling
positions—except in the case of cabinet secretaries where both
confirmation and nomination delays are minimal. For example, from 1987
to 2005, it took presidents an average of 173 days to nominate
non-cabinet agency heads, and it took the Senate an average of 63 days
to confirm these nominations. An even bigger difference exists for
deputy non-cabinet agency heads—it took presidents an average of 301
days to nominate and the Senate 82 days to confirm.
- Presidents have frequently left Senate-confirmed positions
in executive agencies empty or filled with an acting official for many
months at the end of their administrations. This problem is pronounced
in two-term presidencies. At the end of the Clinton and Reagan
administrations, positions had been left vacant for an average of 231
days and 159 days, respectively. Lower-level jobs have far more
vacancies at the end of presidential administrations than those at the
cabinet secretary and deputy cabinet secretary levels, where long
vacancies are rare. Under secretary positions, for example, were vacant
an average of 358 days at the end of the Reagan administration; 341
days at the end of the Clinton administration; 82 days at the end of
the George H. W. Bush administration; and 55 days at the end of the
- Vacancies vary widely by agency, but follow nearly identical
patterns for two-term Presidents Reagan and Clinton. This report
specifically examines vacancies at the Environmental Protection Agency,
Federal Emergency Management Agency, Department of Justice, and
Department of the Treasury during the Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and
Clinton administrations. The Reagan and Clinton administrations show
consistent patterns, but there is a great deal of variation from agency
to agency. Recent presidents have initially filled spots at Treasury
faster than at the EPA and FEMA, while leaving a considerable number of
positions vacant at the EPA near the end of their administrations.
While presidents nominated Treasury positions faster, the Senate
confirmation process consumed a larger percentage of the vacancy period
than positions at the other three agencies examined, except under
President George H.W. Bush.
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
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
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.
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