ALL AMERICAN presidents are empowered to appoint thousands of true believers to turn their campaign promises into policy. But, for months if not years into their terms, all modern American presidents have struggled to get these people into their jobs.
Joe Biden is no exception, at least when it comes to the whopping number of appointees—roughly 1,100—who require confirmation by the Senate. Two months into his administration, Mr. Biden has obtained the confirmation of just 23 people, which puts him slightly ahead of where Donald Trump was at this point, but behind Barack Obama and George W. Bush (see chart). He has not even got all 15 of his cabinet secretaries behind their desks. The last, Marty Walsh (pictured), the mayor of Boston who was nominated to be the labour secretary, is due to have his Senate vote on Monday.
America has far more political appointees in its federal government, some 4,000 in all, than any other developed democracy, according to David E. Lewis, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University. The agony of their constipated hiring process can make the political class wish the deep state was a bit deeper than it actually is. What is more, no one ever really stops to wonder whether, if so many roles can sit empty, all these jobs are needed in the first place.
Under America’s spoils system, presidents used to be free to hand out every job in the government. But in 1881 a spurned office-seeker assassinated President James Garfield. His shaken successor, Chester Arthur, signed into law the act creating the American civil service and, with it, the seeds of a permanent bureaucracy that would grow from administration to administration, developing many fine public servants along with an unknown quantity of rot.
To advocates of the system, preserving a large number of senior positions for presidential appointment to manage the vast bureaucracy makes sense. It should create more accountability, bring new energy and expertise into government, give officials in outlying departments or embassies a direct line to the White House and expose more citizens to public service. But things have generally not worked out that way.
One reason is that the Senate, especially when controlled by the rival party to the president’s, can be hostile to an administration and its appointees. The Democrats currently control the Senate by the narrowest margin. The vice-president, Kamala Harris, has the deciding vote in a chamber divided 50:50.
Another factor is that presidents, and the people they succeed in appointing, tend to get very busy right away with matters besides hiring. Every few years a George W. Bush pledges to reform the bureaucracy, or a Donald Trump promises to run government like a business, but they all wind up labouring just to staff it more or less as it is. Even two years into his presidency, Mr Trump had yet to appoint anyone to more than a third of his vacant positions, according to data kept by Mr Lewis. True, he was a lousy manager, but even Mr Obama and his predecessor, Mr Bush, failed to fill about a quarter of their positions by the two-year mark. Those who do get appointed have little incentive to spend their scant time pursuing structural reform that would largely benefit a future administration (and perhaps also the citizenry). A study in 2010 by Mr Lewis and a colleague, Nick Gallo, found that appointees were reliably worse managers than career officers—and appointees that came from presidential campaigns or political parties were the worst.
The longer the hiring takes, the longer it takes. Interest groups mobilise to push their candidates; campaign donors work the phones to plead for ambassadorships; congressmen weigh in; sometimes a senator blocks a nomination for a time, to gain leverage against the White House over some distantly related matter; and presidents, of course, like to have their own preferences prevail. Every appointment is a wrangle. It took Mr Obama an average of 510 days, and Mr Trump an average of 525 days, to get each assistant secretary of state confirmed, according to the Partnership for Public Service, a non-profit group.
Wise in the ways of Washington, the Biden people anticipated the glacial Senate confirmation process—made even slower this year by run-off Senate elections in Georgia and Mr Trump’s impeachment trial—and came up with a novel workaround. They had more than 1,000 appointees who didn’t require confirmation ready to go as soon as the president was inaugurated. In this category of jobs, that puts Mr Biden far ahead of both Mr Trump and Mr Obama. Combined, they did not manage even within their first 100 days to appoint that many officials who did not require confirmation, according to the Partnership for Public Service.
Mr Biden’s organisational breakthrough is impressive. But that no previous administration had conceived of his manoeuvre is perhaps also an index of how little imagination has been devoted to improving the effectiveness of American governance.
And Mr Biden’s hack of the appointments process will carry him only so far. In the departments and agencies, the top positions generally require Senate approval. Acting and career officials may fill some of the vacancies, but until a confirmed leader arrives to make decisions they are just warming the seats. This is said to be the case now at the State Department, which, across the government, has the largest number of vacancies that must be filled with Senate-confirmed appointees.
The secretary of state, Antony Blinken, sprinted to confirmation back in January. But he does not yet have an under-secretary for arms control and international-security affairs to advise him on dealing with Russia or North Korea. He has no under-secretary for civilian security, democracy and human rights, nor a co-ordinator for counterterrorism or chief of protocol. The administration has yet to nominate, let alone secure confirmation for, any of the 22 assistant secretaries. Dozens of embassies lack an ambassador, each of whom must be confirmed by the Senate.
In 2020 only 21% of the posts of assistant secretary or above were held by career officials, compared with 60% in 1975, according to a study by the Partnership for Public Service; a similar though less extreme trend has shifted the balance of ambassadorships towards political appointees. The Biden administration has indicated it intends to reverse these trends by appointing a higher proportion of career diplomats to senior posts. But allocating more posts to career officers means disappointing more donors and other supporters, raising the stakes even further for each choice that remains in the president’s gift. Add to this consideration the priority Mr Biden places on diversity and the reality of how homogenous the ambassador corps is—only five of 189 ambassadors are black—and the maths become even more complex.
But Mr Blinken got some good news on Thursday: one of his deputies, Brian McKeon, finally cleared the Senate. Mr McKeon’s remit is resources and management. He has his work cut out for him.