The U.S. Doesn’t Need So Many Political Appointees
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Nearly nine months into Joe Biden’s presidency, scores of senior executive-branch positions remain unfilled. Presidential nominations for more than 200 posts have not yet been announced, and more than 200 nominees await Senate confirmation. Republican politicians are much to blame for indiscriminately blocking votes on Biden’s picks, but the logjam also underscores a bigger problem with political appointments. There are far too many.
Out of 2 million federal employees, about 4,000 are appointed by the president, and roughly 1,200 of those require confirmation by the Senate. The appointments clause of the Constitution requires that the president seek the advice and consent of the Senate for all foreign ambassadors and principal government officers. Once mostly limited to cabinet secretaries, that second category now includes dozens of deputy secretaries and undersecretaries; 190 U.S. attorneys and marshals; 60 legal and oversight positions; and hundreds of independent agency officials, commissioners and policy-board members.
As the number of positions needing confirmation have grown, so has the partisanship surrounding them. Individual senators often use procedural tactics to freeze the system even for well-qualified nominees, forcing the Senate to hold time-consuming cloture votes just to bring nominations to the floor. A process that took 56 days on average during Ronald Reagan’s administration extended to 117 days under President Donald Trump.
To this point, Biden has been barely more successful than Trump in getting his nominees to key posts confirmed, partly due to blanket holds placed by Texas Senator Ted Cruz. That’s left the government ill-equipped to manage an array of diplomatic and immigration-related crises. The assistant secretaries of state overseeing policies toward Afghanistan and Latin America weren’t confirmed until Sept. 13. Meanwhile, nominees for posts concerned with the Middle East, arms control and immigration are languishing in the Senate.
The White House and both parties in Congress need to fix this. Republicans such as Cruz and Missouri’s Josh Hawley should drop arbitrary holds and allow votes on nominees for vital national-security posts. The administration should identify and eliminate Senate-confirmed positions that are redundant or have remained vacant across multiple administrations. And the White House and Congress should reduce the number of mid-level appointments and members of federal commissions and boards subject to Senate approval.
Above all, the U.S. should stop putting underqualified political appointees in jobs better carried out by career professionals. Administrative positions dealing with the federal agencies’ budgets, operations and management should be converted to career status and filled by senior civil servants. Making policy jobs below the rank of undersecretary permanent career positions — as in most other advanced democracies — is also worth serious consideration. Giving more authority to experienced professionals would help federal agencies perform better, reduce leadership turnover and shrink government bloat.
Unfortunately, the country’s political leaders agree on vanishingly few priorities — but building a capably staffed bureaucracy ought to be one of them. Reducing the number of presidential appointees and empowering a more professional work force would make Washington leaner and more effective. That’s something both parties should want.
Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.
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