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Will Obama stem the tide of patronage?

ASK THIS | January 14, 2009

Political scientist David Lewis wonders whether loyalists, donors and party officials will get rewarded with appointed positions that are under the media’s radar. And if Obama is really trying to change the way Washington works, why doesn't he reduce the overall number of appointed positions?

(Part of a continuing series of questions for the new administration from a wide range of experts.)

By David E. Lewis

While the president-elect has rolled out cabinet nominees at a record setting pace, the action now has to pick up even more since the presidential personnel office must fill the remaining 3,000-plus appointed positions. This part of the personnel process gets less press attention than the cabinet selection process but it is every bit as important. This is where the immense pressures to reward campaign workers, state and local party officials, interest groups and key donors with positions in the new administration manifest themselves. Obama is likely to feel these pressures more keenly than any other modern president because his campaign mobilized more donors, workers and volunteers than any campaign in recent memory.

Each presidential personnel operation has a “priority placement” operation -- or something like it -- to make sure that people who worked hard for the campaign, large donors, or people with important connections get jobs. Management problems and tawdry scandals more often than not arise from these appointees, not the nominees who have already been announced. Here are some questions I would ask:

Q. How much influence will cabinet secretaries have in the selection of their subordinates?

Since the Reagan Administration, presidents of both parties have exercised control over political appointments all the way down to the lowest levels (e.g., special assistants, speechwriters, and chauffeurs). President Carter was the last president to promise cabinet secretaries the ability to select their own subordinates. Since then, cabinet secretaries have been told, as one personnel official from the Clinton Administration told me, that “these are the president’s appointments -- the Senate confirmed appointees, the non-career SES, and the schedule C appointments, they are all the president’s.” That said, most personnel officials describe the process as cooperative with the presidential personnel office and the secretary each having the right to recommend prospective appointees and a right to veto others. And not all secretaries are created equal. Some are able to leverage national reputations to secure more personnel control than others. Patronage appointees often get foisted on unreceptive cabinet secretaries at the lower levels. If some are given more control over their subordinates than others, it would be interesting to know which ones do and what this tells us about the internal workings of the administration. John Bolton, for example, was foisted on the Colin Powell-led Department of State by the White House.

Q. Is there a priority placement operation in the Obama personnel operation? If so, who heads it and how does it operate?

The priority-placement operations of recent presidential administrations have become increasingly institutionalized, with a separate office for political affairs within the personnel office and a network of White House liaisons located in the departments and major independent agencies. What role do these priority placements have in law enforcement (i.e., U.S. Attorneys) and the distribution of federal largesse in the form of contracts, grants, and licenses? If the resources of the federal government are distributed in a partisan fashion this could have explosive consequences for electoral politics.

Q. How are the White House and the State Department making decisions about ambassadorships?

Historically, the White House and the State Department come to an informal agreement about how many ambassadorships will be filled by the president’s supporters and how many will be filled by career foreign service officers. The White House gets to select between 30 and 40 percent of the ambassadorships and the State Department selects the remainder. Traditionally, the White House keeps the plum postings (e.g., Bahamas, the Vatican) for big donors while career Foreign Service officers fill ambassadorships in places less attractive as a payback for campaign support. If the president-elect is interested in competence in putting together his foreign policy team, how will these big donors figure in? Why not send a new signal to the Foreign Service about the importance of what they do by selecting them for the plum positions in the ambassadorial corps? (The Associated Press reported on January 9 that Obama said that he will not abandon the practice of filling some ambassadorial posts with political appointees, although his "general inclination" is to have career foreign service people in those posts "wherever possible.")

Q. How is the president-elect going to fill important public safety positions, particularly those under the radar?

The conventional wisdom in presidential staffing during a transition is that the president needs to prioritize. President Reagan’s team famously focused on the “key 87” positions for economic policy first. Other presidential personnel officials have spoken about their work finding the “choke points” in government and filling them first. The president-elect seems to be doing the same. This advice is smart as far as it goes but it does not take into account other, less visible, positions that are important for public safety. My own research shows that this historically has been a problem for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA is not on the president’s agenda unless there is a crisis and so FEMA is regularly filled with second- or third-tier political types who were not equipped for their jobs. These patronage appointees are the most likely to embarrass the administration through tawdry scandals and poor management and this can lead to disastrous results as in the case of FEMA’s response to Hurricane Katrina.

Q. If most public management experts believe that the number of politically appointed positions can safely be cut by a substantial amount, why isn’t the president-elect talking about it?

Beyond their value in helping the president exert control, presidential appointees help the president politically by providing an important source of political capital. They allow presidents to hold party coalitions together, build legislative majorities, and pay back old political debts. One way of reducing the influence of patronage in our political system would be to reduce the number of appointed positions or fill appointed positions with career professionals who have risen through the hierarchy via demonstrated competence and their ability to work equally well with both parties.

The uncomfortable truth is that all modern presidents, Republican and Democrat, have to put people into jobs that they would otherwise not select in order to satisfy an important ally or patron or reward and encourage work for the president. How presidents do this is an important determinant of the success and failure of any administration as the cases of Michael Brown (FEMA), Monica Goodling (DOJ), and George Deutsch (NASA) suggest.

Posted by David Lewis
01/20/2009, 06:50 AM

I think it is right to say that the quality of the individuals matters a lot but with a qualification. There are a bunch of really outstanding appointees out there along with some not so good ones. I've interviewed a number of just fantastic, competent appointees, people you feel great about having run our government. The same can be said of the career professionals. My point was not to say that appointees are always worse or better. Rather, I think the evidence suggests that some balance between the two in each agency is appropriate.

What is the right mix of appointees and careerists? Probably less than we have right now. When a new party comes into power in most developed democracies between 50 and several hundred positions change over. In the US, the number is closer to 3000 or 3500. I would be hesitant to invest in a Fortune 500 company that turned over this many managers regularly.

While appointees bring energy, risk-taking, responsiveness, and a big picture to governing, too many of them can cause management problems even when all appointees are competent. There are a few reasons for this. First, appointees turn over more regularly, creating regular leadership vacuums which hurt management. Second, when appointees have all of the high paying and influential jobs, it is harder to recruit and retain people in the civil service. Many leave for lucrative contracting jobs or retire. Finally, it becomes hard to get civil servants to invest in expertise and training when it doesn't help them advance in their work.

The other thing I would say here is that the large number of appointees in the US does not persist only because of issues of control in management. It largely persists because presidents need places to put people who work for them on campaigns, give them money, or who have important patrons. The appointees who get jobs for this reason are often the most problematic.

The larger point Ken makes is right, though. A good personnel operation focused around getting the right people can make a huge difference.

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