U.S. President Donald Trump departs past the empty seats of Democratic members of Congress in Washington, February 2017.
Carlos Barria / REUTERS

U.S. President Donald Trump has recently made headlines for the many government jobs he has left unfilled. As of April 25, the U.S. Senate had confirmed only 26 of Trump’s executive branch appointments. Of the remaining 1,028 positions that require Senate approval (also known as PAS positions), a mere 37 nominations were awaiting a Senate vote, and 40 had been announced but not formally nominated. In terms of confirmations, Trump has fallen behind his most recent White House predecessors; at the hundred-day mark, Barack Obama had 69 confirmed; George W. Bush had 35; Bill Clinton, 49; and George H. W. Bush, 50.

Because of the expanding volume of appointments, increased vetting, and growing political polarization, the pace of presidential appointments has been slowing steadily for the past half century. From 1964 to 1984, 48 percent of presidential nominees were confirmed within two months. From 1984 to 1999, only 15 percent were confirmed within the same timespan. The average number of days to fill a position requiring presidential appointment and Senate confirmation in the Ronald Reagan administration was 194 days, and the average in the George W. Bush administration was 242 days.

Trump has already complained about the slow pace. “You can’t do it faster, because they’re obstructing,” he said on Fox News. “They’re obstructionists.” Despite his implications that opposition Democrats in the Senate have been thwarting his efforts to fill essential positions in his administration, the fact is that he has made only 46 nominations for the more than 500 top positions, fewer than his most recent predecessors. As in other administrations, the White House nomination process, not the Senate, has been the fundamental cause of the delay. There are several factors that can explain the delay, some generic to all administrations, but some unique to Trump.

THE ROOTS OF THE DELAY

The Trump transition was slow to get under way, in part because few in the Trump camp expected to win the election. Prior to the election, any resources that went to transition preparation came at the expense of the campaign. Most transition personnel operations have scores of recruiters at work well before the election. But shortly after Trump’s victory, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was removed from his position as transition director, and his lists of potential nominees were scrapped. It was not until mid-January that the current director of political recruitment, Johnny DeStefano, came on board. DeStefano, who had no executive recruitment experience prior to taking the position, currently has 36 staffers working for him—not significantly fewer than previous White House recruitment operations, but a team with significantly less preparation to draw upon.

Another part of the challenge is the sheer volume of appointments. The United States has more political appointees than any other developed democracy. Each contemporary president can appoint about 4,000 people to executive branch positions, with the most important positions (aside from White House staffers who do not require Senate confirmation) being in the subcabinet, members of which are the immediate subordinates of agency heads. These appointments amount to about 550 of 1,054 total presidential positions requiring Senate confirmation. New administrations can also make 535 non-career Senior Executive Service appointments (top management levels below executive appointments) and 1,392 Schedule C appointments (lower in the bureaucracies), neither of which require Senate confirmation.

Each transition team has to deal with a flood of eager applicants hoping to ride the new president’s coattails into the top levels of government. Although the 87,000 applications that came into the Trump transition headquarters were dwarfed by the 300,000 applications for Obama positions, they are still time-consuming and difficult to comb through, especially considering the Trump team’s late start and lack of experience. Presidential recruiters must devote a large portion of their resources to vetting and background investigations. This vetting takes time and personnel resources and is a major cause of delays in making political appointments. Political and personal background checks have derailed nominees of most previous presidents. After vetting, Trump withdrew the nomination of Andrew Puzder in mid-February for issues not discovered at the vetting stage of his consideration for secretary of labor. In addition, a top-level aide of housing secretary Ben Carson was fired after previous criticisms he’d made of Trump came to the attention of the White House staff.

The administration has faced other challenges in the appointments process. Although most presidents have close connections to their political parties, Trump’s nomination was uniquely opposed by most of the Republican establishment, which he blamed for being complicit in making a mess of the country. Because of his outsider status, Trump was not well connected to the “shadow government” of experienced Republican policy exiles or think tankers who normally would populate a new Republican administration.

Trump’s attacks on the Republican establishment caused particular problems in the national security policy arena. Fifty former national security professionals who had served in Republican administrations from Richard Nixon through George W. Bush signed a letter stating that Trump was “not qualified to be Commander-in-Chief,” and that he “lacks the character, values and experience to be President.” Signers of that document, despite their valuable experience, were not likely to be welcomed into the administration; other Republican potential national security nominees did not feel comfortable working for Trump and simply declined to be considered.

In any administration there will be conflicts between the White House Personnel Office and cabinet secretaries over subcabinet appointments. All cabinet secretaries would prefer to have the discretion to put together their own management teams to lead their departments. But from the perspective of the White House, the first loyalty of such appointees will likely be to the secretary rather than to the White House. This tension was illustrated when Secretary of Defense James Mattis rejected a number of candidates suggested by the transition team. In turn, Mattis’ own suggestions were vetoed by the White House. Other cabinet secretaries, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have also clashed with the White House over subcabinet appointees.

It may also be more difficult to find experienced and well qualified nominees for high levels in cabinet departments and agencies that the president has disparaged or slotted for deep budget cuts. These include the Departments of State, Labor, and Commerce, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency. Trump has opined that many subcabinet personnel may be superfluous. “A lot of those jobs, I don’t want to appoint, because they’re unnecessary to have,” he told Fox News. “What do all these people do? You don’t need all of those jobs.”  

The White House recruitment process itself gets in the way of the process because of the division between the populists, represented by Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, and establishment Republicans. Potential candidates must make it through the gauntlet of Trump White House advisers, including Bannon, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, and Counsel Don McGahn, as well as Josh Peacock, Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff. In addition, Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, pays particular attention to the personal loyalty of candidates to Trump, and Trump’s daughter Ivanka, now assistant to the president, also occasionally weighs in. The slowness of appointments has been frustrating to cabinet secretaries who feel that they need their appointed subordinates in order to implement the administration’s policy priorities. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao even hired an outside consultant to help her identify candidates to head her department’s agencies and guide them through the process.

To be sure, the routine functions of government will continue to be carried out competently by the civil and military officials responsible for implementing policies that are in place. But these officials cannot represent a new administration, provide policy leadership, or make decisions about significant changes in policy.

Disincentives that plague all administrations are also at work and perhaps worse for Trump. A presidential appointment often entails a move to Washington and significant cuts in income to take a position that may last only two to four years. Further, with Trump’s penchant for appointing successful business executives, financial disclosures and divestment requirements present disincentives to potential nominees. Trump’s picks for secretary of the army (Vincent Viola) and secretary of the navy (Philip Bilden) both withdrew because of divestment requirements that they considered too strict.

In short, in addition to the initial challenges that face all incoming presidents in recruiting political appointees, President Trump lags behind his predecessors for several reasons. The slowness of the transition operation to get under way, the lack of familiarity with the workings of the executive branch on the part of Trump and many White House staffers, the rigid focus on personal loyalty to Trump, and the multiple vetoes wielded by White House staffers of differing ideological persuasions have all hampered the pace of appointments. To avoid a repetition of these challenges, future presidents would benefit from better pre-election preparation, better relations with their political party, more resources devoted to the political recruitment process and vetting, and a more streamlined sign-off gauntlet.

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