CongressLine: Presidential Patronage

Every four years, and particularly when a new president prepares to enter office, a mad scramble begins for thousands of presidentially appointed offices within the government. The selection process has evolved over the past couple hundred years and every position outside of the new president’s personal staff requires Senate approval. [Editor's note: see also the 2008-2009 Presidential Transition Resources website and the Presidential Transition Guide to Federal Human Resources Management.]

The vast majority of the employees of the federal government are career, professional employees. These positions are not subject to presidential appointment and they toil in the federal service no matter who is the president. The top-level positions, however, are dubbed “political” and are presidentially appointed. A list of these positions ia available in a publication referred to as the Plum Book. The title of the book holds another meaning besides the color of the front page; these positions often are considered political plums.

The president is free to select almost anyone that meets his own criteria for these positions, minus some requirements for adjusting personal finances and security clearances. Political patronage is one of the key perks of the Office of President. Over the years the criteria for selection have evolved from appointments as raw political partisan to a more nuanced political partisan and experience combination. In the nineteenth century it was not uncommon to see a line being formed outside the White House after an election filled with office-seekers looking for jobs in the federal government. Many left happy with posts such as local postmasters or customs jobs. The line still forms today, but it is not so obvious, and most modern presidents have some process of vetting and selecting candidates for the thousands of appointed positions.

It is not entirely neutral however. Big campaign fundraisers and supporters are still offered jobs, particularly ambassadorships. The ambassadors to the major European capitals are normally dear friends of the president or major party fundraisers, not career Foreign Service officers. Lower level boards and commissions are also filled with partisan friends and supporters who may or may not have some tie to the role they are offered.

Competence was often a secondary factor for an appointment, but it has been a larger consideration in modern times, especially as the federal government’s role has become more complex and incompetence therefore more dangerous, if not disastrous. But even as competence is a larger factor in the selection, eminent, notable and accomplished people can still be considered cronies.

President-elect Barack Obama is now processing thousands of applications for positions and the vetting process has become much more cumbersome. This is due to a fundamental shift in the visibility of government actions that readers of this column should appreciate. Government actions are much more open than they have been in the past; bloggers blog continuously, cable television has entire channels monitoring the process, and documents and actions are available nearly instantly to anyone who cares. The backgrounds of the people selected are transmitted instantly to the world; embarrassing details of nominees can hobble the effectiveness of a new administration. In other words, quaint nineteenth century patronage meets the twenty-first century blogoshere.

The president’s cabinet is the pinnacle of the appointed positions. Any analysis of any of the past presidents would be incomplete if you did not analyze whom he selected for the cabinet positions. The cabinet itself is a customary creation; it has no actual constitutional authority and is merely the assembly of the department chiefs. Selecting the heads of the major government departments is also part competence and part political. Historically, both political friends and rivals have been chosen for the cabinet. Democrats have appointed Republicans (Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of War was the Republican Henry Stimson) and Republicans have selected Democrats (George W. Bush’s Transportation Secretary was the Democrat Norman Mineta.) President Lincoln’s cabinet probably is most famous for the odd collection of characters including many who were fervid enemies and who disliked Lincoln.

In the past some specific positions often went to certain types of people. For example, the Attorney General up until recent times normally was awarded to a very close confidant of the president. President John F Kennedy chose his younger brother for the job; Reagan his personal attorney. Defense Secretaries and Secretaries of State are normally the most sensitive appointments. Secretaries of the Treasury normally have some banking or financial background. The Labor Department is a plum for labor union oriented people and the Commerce Department for business oriented persons. Agriculture and Interior posts frequently go to Midwestern and Western governors.

One common theme that is typical for modern administrations is the use of previous (same party) administration personnel. George W. Bush’s positions drew from a large pool of people who were waiting for a Republican president to get elected and had worked for Presidents George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan or even Richard Nixon. President-elect Obama is already selecting many appointees from the administration of Bill Clinton.

Congress is also a convenient place to poach new administration officials. Recently retired or defeated Congressmen or eminent Senators can be a useful choice for a new president. One key factor for this selection relates to the next step in the process. The Senate must confirm all the appointments, so that a sitting or retired Senator may have an inside edge for an easier Senate confirmation.

The Senate has always been the more glamorous chamber of Congress. Part of its allure is its non-legislative role in advising and consenting to presidential actions and appointments. It is a unique role for a legislative chamber. One element of the constitutional advice and consent function is the Senate’s prerogative to approve the appointment of these several thousand highest-level positions of government, plus all the several thousand non-political appointments and promotions, particularly in the armed services. When selecting an appointee, the president inherently considers the Senate “confirmability” of the candidate.

In a different era, Senators approved confirmations much the same way the president made appointments, for purely political reasons. Battles over appointments have happened but only a handful of appointees failed to get the approval of the Senate. One way the Senate can reject a nominee is by never getting around to voting on their confirmation. In addition, the Senate has frequently held up presidential appointments in order leverage presidential support on other issues.

If a candidate fails to be considered by the Senate, or the Senate is not in session, the President in certain circumstances can appoint the person to the position on an “acting” basis and that appointee can serve for a limited time period. These “recess appointments” can be a very sore point of contention between the Senate and the executive branch because they may be used to appoint controversial figures who were unlikely to be confirmed by the Senate. The issue normally arises when the Senate is controlled by one party and the White House by the other.

Once appointed, the Senate is notified in writing and the chamber then prepares to interview the appointee. Normally the appropriate authorizing committee takes up the job of holding public hearings; for example, the Judiciary Committee handles judicial appointments and the Armed Services Committee handles defense. It is convenient that the current Senate is controlled by the same party as the new president but even that does not mean approval is automatic. This is the Senate, not the House of Representatives and the Senate is notable for its arcane rules of collegiality and consensus, unlike the rigidly partisan controlled House of Representatives.

Keeping track of Senate confirmations is not as easy as tracking a bill through the legislative process. The Senate does publish a calendar of Senate executive actions and actions are also published in the Congressional Record, but anticipating when actions will happen normally requires a source that follows the Senate in closer detail.

While the Senate may have vetted nominees informally in the past, the new media world of the Internet and cable television now does a lot of the work of the Senate beforehand. Old-fashioned political horse-trading and cronyism, while still active, is now subject to the rude gaze of Internet bloggers and television pundits. This visibility and scrutiny can be quite overwhelming and greatly affects the selection and confirmation process. In the past the rude gaze of the public was limited to only the highest-level appointments, particularly Supreme Court justices. This limitation is gradually eroding to the point that even secondary positions at the Interior Department can be contested in the Senate.

If you are looking for a job, and you contributed to or worked for the Obama campaign and have some experience you are free to apply but remember the Senate will also have to pass judgment on you. If you do, you will be participating in one of the most time-honored aspects of the U.S. political system – patronage.