More on Presidential Appointments.

Jonathan Bernstein responds to my post on reforming the presidential appointment process with a convincing case for the merits of the status quo:

At it's best, the system will achieve input from national level interests (through the presidency), relevant local and narrow interests (through Congress), and expertise (through the bureaucracy). Moreover, at its best, the incentives within the system will push everyone to compete for control of policy, which should -- by forcing people to defend their positions, and choose which things are worth fighting for -- yield better policy in the long run.

I should say that I broadly agree with Bernstein. To walk back a little from my previous stridency, it's a good thing that the president can staff the bureaucracy with people committed to his political ideals, and a good thing -- as far as democracy goes -- that the bureaucracy is permeable and (somewhat) responsive to electoral demands. As someone who mostly supports robust presidential action, I agree that executive-branch appointments "are an important weapon for the president, and one that shouldn't be taken from him."

That said, democratic accountability and bureaucratic permeability doesn't necessitate a regime where -- from the outset -- the White House is responsible for recruiting and screening tens of thousands of people for thousands of positions. For the Office of Presidential Personnel, which is mostly responsible for the grunt work of presidential appointments, the sheer volume of people reduces its effectiveness, lengthens the appointment process, and slows the staffing of a new administration. Presidents need their own people in place throughout government in order to have a responsible government, yes, but the truth is that the president hardly knows most of the people appointed in his name. These people may be personally loyal to the president, or they may not, and they aren't necessarily responsive to the president's concerns.

Granted, a high volume of presidential appointees makes sense if the bureaucracy is hostile to political influence, but it's not clear that's the case; in at least the Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan administration's, an overwhelming majority of political appointees agreed that high-level civil servants were responsive to the needs of the administration. I understand the need and rationale for presidential appointments on the leadership and high-level subordinate level, but I don't think that extends to the countless low-level political appointees. I might be mistaken here, but I think you could significantly reduce the number of low-level appointees without actually harming the president's ability to bend and influence the bureaucracy.

-- Jamelle Bouie

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