Paul Pillar

The Unelected Government

A proposal with bipartisan support of leadership in the Senate would trim by about 200 the number of positions in the executive branch that would require Senate confirmation. Supporters of the measure point to the often long time required for confirmation and to the many vacancies that invariably persist well after a new president takes office. Opponents argue that removing the Senate's role of advising and consenting to these appointments would add too much to presidential power unchecked by the legislative branch. Neither supporters nor opponents seem to be addressing a big underlying question: why should such a large proportion of the government be dismantled each time the presidency changes hands?

The United States is almost unique among advanced democracies in having a huge number of political appointees, filling jobs that change occupants with each change of presidential administration. The number of such positions, which has been growing faster than the federal government as a whole (and only some of which require Senate confirmation), was up to about 3,000 when President Obama entered office . The prevailing pattern in other democracies is a far smaller political layer, typically comprising in each department a minister, a couple of junior ministers, and small personal staff, atop a bureaucracy that extends up to someone with a title such as permanent undersecretary.

The atypical U.S arrangement makes for major disruption with every change of president, and not only for reasons having to do with Senate confirmation. The sheer number of appointments, whether or not confirmation is required, leads to numerous vacancies for months after inauguration day. The system seems to assume that the tasks of government start from scratch every four years, but of course the great majority of governmental tasks, and the problems and challenges related to them, do not follow any such schedule. Thus even without the vacancies, much time, knowledge, and efficiency is lost every time such a large proportion of the upper (and not so upper) levels of the executive branch cleans out its desks.

The huge political layer has other serious drawbacks, including a blurring of the distinction between elected political masters and an apolitical civil service. The blurring means much of the business of the government is being directed by people who are far removed from any electoral mandate but also not part of a tradition and ethic of diligently serving whoever is the political master of the day. The blurring breeds resentment and misunderstanding between the appointed in-and-outers and professional bureaucrats. And it represents a partial politicization of the bureaucracy itself, with all that implies regarding dangerous intermingling of information and advocacy.

An argument sometimes made in defense of the huge political layer is that changing the staffing of a large proportion of the government means bringing in fresh ideas. But there are much less disruptive ways of getting fresh ideas, such as consultancies that government departments use all the time already, not to mention simply listening to larger public debate about leading issues. Besides, the circles from which many of the in-and-outers come, including law firms and ideologically defined think tanks and advocacy groups, are not necessarily fonts of fresh thinking.

The most common justification for the layer is that each president needs like-minded people to ensure that his policies are followed. But that argument assumes away the concept of an apolitical civil service, a core mission of which is to do exactly that. The current system actually makes it less likely that the president's preferences and policies (and the understanding of those preferences and policies among the members of the American public who elected the president) will be followed. Those 3,000 appointees are not clones of the president, or even of his political and policy thinking. The appointees have their own preferences and agendas, which often differ in significant ways from others in the same political party and others who supported election of the same president. Which potential appointees get the jobs and thus the opportunity to act on those preferences and agendas is the result of a haphazard process that involves luck, having the right contacts, or signing up with the right candidate during primary season. None of that has much to do with fulfilling an electoral mandate won in November.

The biggest actual reason the huge political layer has persisted is that many of those jobs are rewards for support in an election. If those rewards were not available to any candidate, U.S. democracy would be at least as strong as it is now. But no presidential candidate wants to be the only one to deny his supporters that incentive. So we probably are stuck indefinitely with the current disruptive and cumbersome system for staffing much of the government.