The Buzz

Long Transitions and Lots of Appointees

Tevi Troy has a very good, very long piece about presidential transitions in the current issue of National Affairs. He recounts his experience as the director of domestic policy for the “Romney Readiness Project,” which, beginning in July 2012, was “assigned to help Mitt Romney prepare for the early personnel and policy decisions he would face if he won in November.” The piece is valuable because this project was the first of its type to be funded by the federal government, born out of a 2010 law that “provides government support . . . to help presidential challengers begin transition efforts upon receiving their parties' nominations.”

Troy argues convincingly that starting to prepare early for a transition does not represent hubris—rather, it is essential given the size and complexity of modern government. He contends that the $8.9 million spent by the Romney transition project was a worthwhile investment even though the candidate lost. The argument is straightforward: if there’s a significant chance that a challenger might win the election, and the responsibilities of the president are as immense as they are, a modest investment to make sure his team is as prepared as it can be is prudent.

One issue that Troy discusses in detail is the challenge of staffing a new administration. Noting that the presidential confirmation process has become “lengthy, burdensome and overly partisan,” the transition team “wanted to have short lists ready so that the president-elect could choose candidates for the most important positions almost immediately after the election.” This required that each of the team’s three major subgroups—for economics, domestic policy and national security—“provide approximately 400 names that could potentially take top-level positions at the eight or so agencies under its purview.”

Unfortunately, this problem is not limited to new, incoming administrations. Recently, Foreign Policy has reported on the larger-than-normal number of senior positions that are either vacant or staffed by acting personnel at both the State Department and the Pentagon as President Obama begins his second term.

At Outside the Beltway, James Joyner observes that while congressional obstruction is a factor in this, the administration also bears responsibility for not putting names forward in a number of cases. Joyner’s proposed remedy is a sound one, although it is probably a political nonstarter given how much any White House will naturally want to maximize its control over personnel:

This is another data point in support of a position I’ve held for some time: there are far, far too many appointed positions in our government. Yes, the president ought to be able to put his stamp on policy, and bringing in outsiders of his selection at the top leadership levels helps facilitate that. It makes sense to have appointed cabinet secretaries, deputy secretaries, and even undersecretaries. But do we really need to appoint assistant secretaries and deputy assistant secretaries? Why not fill those from the ranks of the professionals of the Senior Executive Service?