Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Continuity, Competence, and the Succession of Senate-Confirmed Agency Appointees, 1989-2009

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Continuity, Competence, and the Succession of Senate-Confirmed Agency Appointees, 1989-2009

Article excerpt

The presidential power to appoint senior government officials has evolved from a few phrases in the second paragraph of the second section of Article II of the U.S. Constitution into an unwieldy and opaque system of rules and expectations. "The appointment power operates in a framework of studied ambiguity," Louis Fisher observes, developing through generations of "imaginative accommodations between the executive and legislative branches" (1985, 59). Demands for broad-based reform occasionally take hold, most recently through the Vacancies Reform Act of 1998, which sought to reassert the Senate's advise and consent power by placing strict (though sometimes neglected) limitations on the service of "acting" appointee (GAO 2003; Stayn 2001). Yet, as in the case of the controversy over the appointment of interim U.S. attorneys in the Department of Justice, the system's "studied ambiguity" remains unyielding. (1) Its complexity is rooted in tensions inherent in presidential administration: the drive for political control and policy competence; the dynamics of issue networks and policy domains; and the priorities and ambitions of politicians, interest groups, and administrators.

Recognizing that efforts to fix the appointee system are as inevitable as the system is, in some basic respects, unfixable, this article aims simply to provide a measure of clarity. We describe one prominent feature of agency appointee politics--continuity--based on appointee turnover, tenure, and position vacancies. (2) We develop a series of snapshots in time, illuminating the succession of the top-tier of appointees--presidentially appointed and Senate confirmed (PAS)--during the administrations of George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, between January 20, 1989 and January 20, 2009. Using a new data set drawn from the Office of Personnel Management, Government Accountability Office, and a variety of published sources, we analyze roughly 2,200 appointments across three presidencies, describing patterns of tenure and vacancies that form the contours of the administrative presidency. (3) We consider research linking appointee continuity and agency performance and conclude by reflecting on the nature of this relationship for research on and the practice of presidential administration.

More than three decades ago, Hugh Heclo's A Government of Strangers (1977) depicted America's transient governing elite--the presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed administrators populating the upper echelons of federal government agencies--as the role of appointees shifted with the expanding reach of institutional presidency. Heclo observed that transience among appointees forms a stark, sometimes uneasy contrast with the continuity of senior-level career civil servants, often at the culmination of successful government careers. He saw relations between appointees and careerists shifting under the weight of thickening bureaucracies and the politicization of government administration, central themes in contemporary presidency and public administration scholarship (Goodsell 2006; Light 1995; Peters and Pierre 2004). Richard Nathan's (1983) administrative presidency and Terry Moe's (1985, 1990, 1993) politicized presidency have inspired a generation of scholars who have embraced political control of the bureaucracy as a means to fulfill Hamiltonian visions of an energetic executive. (4) Critics of politicization, by contrast, stress the value of administrative competence, contending that politicized agencies put the state's capacity for expertise and, ultimately, performance at risk (Lane 1996; Williams 1990).

Most contemporary thinking about politicization posits a trade-off between political control and administrative competence (Bawn 1995; Bertelli and Feldman 2007; Epstein and O'Halloran 1999; Miller 2005). This control-competence trade-off is analytically useful, framing a critical tension in bureaucratic structure (Waldo 1948; Weber 1958). …

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