Pace of Trump’s appointments ‘slowest in 40 years’, research finds

By on 04/09/2017 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Presidential appointments under president Trump is the slowest in 40 years (Image courtesy: Kevin McCoy).

US President Donald Trump has made nominations for just 277 out of the more than 1,100 political appointments that are subject to Senate approval, a study by the Washington DC-based not-for-profit Partnership for Public Service (PPS) has found, whilst his progress on securing confirmations is less than half as rapid as that made by the last three presidents.

The Senate had confirmed just 124 of these by its August summer recess, despite Majority Leader Mitch McConnell postponing the break by two weeks to tackle a backlog of legislation and approvals. Around 70 appointments were agreed during the extension. The Senate resumes on September 5.

Progress in filling the presidential appointments under Trump is the slowest in 40 years, according to the non-partisan PPS, which works to make government more effective. The President had served for nearly seven months when the recess began on August 12.

His predecessors’ progress

After the same period in Barack Obama’s presidency, 433 appointees had been nominated and 310 confirmed; under George W Bush, 414 had been nominated and 294 confirmed; and under Bill Clinton, 345 had been nominated and 252 confirmed. Trump’s figures stand at 64-80% of these numbers for nominations, and just 40-49% for confirmations.

The sluggish progress has prompted a war of words on Twitter between the Trump White House and Senate Democrats, with both sides accusing each other of causing delays. “Dems are taking forever to approve my people, including Ambassadors,” Trump tweeted earlier in the summer. “They are nothing but OBSTRUCTIONISTS! Want approvals.”

Senator Ben Cardin, lead Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which confirms nominations for ambassadors, tweeted back: “Your lack of nominations is the problem.”

Plugging the gaps

Mallory Barg-Bulman, vice president of research and evaluation at PPS, said: “In order to catch up, it is imperative that Trump move quickly to identify top talent for the important, unfilled positions across the government and that the Senate give his nominees prompt consideration.”

PPS publishes an online database that is tracking progress on 591 key presidential appointments which are deemed crucial for running the government effectively. The posts include cabinet secretaries, deputy and assistant secretaries, ambassadors, chief financial officers, general counsel, and heads of agencies. Of these, 223 have been nominated and 117 filled.

Three departments – Labor, Agriculture and Energy – had fewer than 10% of their senior posts filled by the August recess, while less than 25% of positions were filled in a further five departments: Justice, State, Transportation, Education and Interior.

Less than 50% confirmed political appointments made by president Trump compared to his predecessors (Image courtesy: Partnership for Public Service).

The costs of delay

In the meantime, the senior political posts are being occupied by career civil servants working in an acting capacity or left vacant, leading to concerns that the US federal government is unprepared to meet emergencies and unable to make policy decisions.

“Relying on career employees to serve in an acting capacity when a political appointee has not been nominated or confirmed is comparable to having a substitute teacher in the classroom,” said Barg-Bulman. “They may have the experience, but they are not perceived as having real authority. These acting executives are unlikely to make key decisions or take on long-term challenges because their position is temporary

“The president is in a race against the clock to fill many critical policy and management positions as quickly as possible. As he gets further into his presidency, crises of the day will crowd out the important decisions he needs to make to best serve the American people. And not having a team on the field will limit his ability to govern effectively.”

Will he fill them?

However, Trump indicated last week that hundreds of top posts for political appointees may be left vacant. Following a discussion on the Fox News programme Fox & Friends about the 366 senior posts with no nominees, he tweeted: “We are not looking to fill all those positions. Don’t need many of them – reduce size of government.”

The US has the largest number of political appointments of any industrialised democracy. The positions are a legacy of the 19th century ‘spoils system’, in which the victorious political party in an election handed out government jobs to its supporters, friends and relatives as a reward for campaign work, and can often lead to long pauses in critical decision-making when one administration gives way to another.

About Liz Heron

Liz Heron is a journalist based in London. She worked on daily newspapers for more than 16 years as an education correspondent, section editor and general news reporter. She was Education Editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and has contributed to a wide range of British media including The Independent, The Guardian and the BBC.

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