The US presidential transition will occupy the Trump administration for months to come

Donald Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th US President next week, but the vast task of assembling the new administration will continue for months to come. In this post Donald F. Kettl explains what America’s unique transition process involves and outlines what progress Trump has made so far.

There is nothing in the world quite like the American presidential transition. In the foreground is the mega-debate about how the new president will shape policy (see our previous blog posts, here and here). But in the critical background, there is the incredible job of actually putting the new administration together, a challenge unlike that facing any other major democracy in the world.

It is an unusually long stretch between the election and the start of the new administration –10 weeks, compared with the virtually instantaneous transition in the United Kingdom.

In the US, the transition involves far more people – nearly 700 top officials, who head government agencies, nearly all of whom require confirmation by the Senate. There are another 4,000 appointees across the government, including policy assistants and political staffers, that the president appoints and who do not require Senate confirmation.

In the US, many of the appointees come into government with relatively little preparation. Despite constant warnings from experts about the need to plan months before the election for the complexity of the transition, the search for cabinet ministers often doesn’t begin in earnest until after the election. British transitions are much easier, with shadow ministers in the opposition bird-dogging the government, with fewer positions to fill, and with no separate legislative confirmation process.

For better or worse, there are reasons why the American system has evolved in this way. The transition period is actually shorter than it used to be – until 1937, the inauguration was in March, because it often took months in an agrarian society for newly elected officials to put aside their work and make their way to Washington. Having so many political appointments has long been thought to be a good thing, at least by some people, because it provides a way for new presidents to put their stamp on the workings of government. Senate confirmation has provided a reinforcement of the checks-and-balances system on which the US Constitution builds.

In general, there is a profound irony here. The American president has, arguably, become the single most powerful person in the world. But Americans, in tradition and Constitution, have never much trusted their executives and have built multiple barriers to keep them from becoming too powerful.

So not only is the transition long, complex, and difficult but it is that way on purpose.

A tsunami of appointees. Newly elected presidents face a bewildering thicket of appointments. Here’s a breakdown of the approximately 1,200 positions that that the president can appoint, subject to Senate confirmation, according to a 2016 study by the Congressional Research Service. They include:

  • Secretaries to head the 15 cabinet agencies, along with their deputy secretaries, assistant secretaries, and general counsels: more than 350 positions. The relatively small Department of the Interior has 17 presidential appointees, the Department of Justice 27 and the Department of Defense 53.
  • Justices of the Supreme Court. There are nine positions; one is now vacant, and President Trump will have the power to nominate a new justice.
  • Positions in independent agencies, like NASA: more than 120 positions.
  • Positions in regulatory agencies, like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Aviation Administration: more than 130 positions.
  • S. Attorneys and US Marshals, who exercise substantial authority in the criminal justice system: about 200 positions.
  • Ambassadors to nations around the globe: more than 150 positions.
  • Presidential appointments to boards and commissions, including the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System: more than 160 positions.

The Trump transition got a very late start in putting its personnel operation into gear and, with less than two weeks to go before inauguration day, Trump had named just 26 individuals for the top 664 positions. (For an ongoing count, the best source is the Political Appointee Tracker, run by a premier Washington think tank, the Partnership for Public Service.)

Recruitment. How do presidents find recruits for all these slots? Sometimes, the campaigns quietly begin lining up top appointees before the election, but often the process doesn’t get into gear until after the election day – no candidate wants to look too presumptuous, even though the best advice is to start the process very early. The campaign staff begins with its list of closest supporters. They get ideas from the party’s organisation and its party members in Congress. From there, the network ripples out: who served in which positions in previous administrations, who has the best reputation for getting results, who has spoken out on issues in ways that catch the president-elect’s attention, and sometimes who made big campaign contributions.

Finding the right matches for the top positions – people who have good chemistry with the president for the top positions, and whose own policy positions won’t cause too many frictions with the emerging White House staff – is a big job. Filling all the positions is an enormous task, one that frequently takes most of the administration’s first year.

Vetting. Along the way is an often painful step of vetting the candidates’ financial records, both for compliance with the tax laws and for potential conflicts of interest. Candidates must fill out lengthy disclosure documents, which for nominees with long careers and a lot of investments can take weeks of work by large teams of attorneys. The Trump transition short-circuited the vetting process, often by naming nominees first and doing the vetting later. That opened their nominees to the risks of damaging disclosures, like one nominee who was discovered to have engaged in substantial plagiarism. For many potential nominees, the intensive scrutiny and vetting can discourage them from jumping into the process to begin with.

And there is another irony: there is no such vetting process for presidential candidates themselves.

The sprint to inauguration. Switching gears from campaigning to governing and then jumping into this massive appointment process are both enormous challenges. In 2008, Barack Obama had completed his cabinet appointments by December 19. The Trump administration got off to a fast start after the election but then, by mid-December, became bogged down. With less than two weeks in January before the inauguration, Trump still had not named secretaries for Agriculture or Veterans Affairs. Perhaps more important, he had not named many of his second-level appointees, who carry much of the responsibility for actually running the government.

Trump had promised in the campaign to ‘drain the swamp’ but without most of the key appointees in place, it promised to be difficult to find the swamp, let alone drain it.

The continuing process. The appointment process does not end on inauguration day. When the president moves into the Oval Office, the appointment job moves from the transition staff to the Office of Presidential Personnel (OPP). After the initial flurry, it typically settles into a staff of 30-40 persons, and they’re responsible for an appointments process that never ends. Not only does a new president face the task of naming literally thousands of political appointees (though the White House takes strong interest only in the top thousand or so). The average tenure for political appointees is about 2.5 years, so the OPP often can’t finish filling the positions before it must begin looking for replacements.

This means that for much of the first year, and periodically after that, the management of federal agencies rests in the hands of career staff temporarily stepping into higher-level positions. The goal of having so many political appointees is to give the president more political leverage over the bureaucracy, but because the number is so large and the task is so great, the permanent bureaucracy ironically often has more power than the process intends.

The American difference. There’s nothing quite like this process anywhere in the world. Some of it flows very deliberately from design, to try to restrain the president’s power but also to allow presidents to mold the bureaucracy to their liking. Some of it flows from concerns about potential conflicts of interest and the vetting that follows to prevent it. And some of it flows from the enormity and complexity of the task.

For new presidents moving into the White House, managing the most important office in the world comes with a huge challenge. As they look around in the crucial first days and weeks of their administrations – as they make big decisions on the budget, a legislative agenda, regulatory policy, and foreign affairs – they often discover that they have few of their own allies to lend a hand. That either means they must slow down in fulfilling the promises they made or rely more on the insiders they promised to root out.

The Trump challenge. Given the bold promises of the Trump campaign and the slow pace of his transition, that is likely to be especially the case. Watching how his transition unfolds, even after he takes office, will give valuable clues about just how strongly he will be able to grab the real reins of power in Washington.

About the author

Donald F. Kettl is a Professor in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland. His publications include The Politics of the Administrative Process (7th ed., Sage, 2017) and Escaping Jurassic Government: How to Recover America’s Lost Commitment to Competence (Brookings, 2016).

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