Journalism in the Public Interest

Under Obama, More Appointments Go Unfilled

More presidentially appointed positions were sitting vacant at the end of President Obama’s first term than at the end of Bill Clinton’s or George W. Bush’s first terms, according to a ProPublica analysis.

President Barack Obama delivers remarks on immigration reform at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Jan. 29, 2013. More presidentially appointed positions were sitting vacant at the end of his first term than at the end of Bill Clinton’s or George W. Bush’s first terms, according to a ProPublica analysis.(Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

Feb. 28: This post has been corrected.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services haven’t had a Senate-confirmed administrator since 2006. The Federal Labor Relations Authority has had only a single member since January and can’t issue decisions. And the Election Assistance Commission hasn’t had any commissioners at all since 2011.

All presidential administrations have vacancies. But an analysis of appointments data by ProPublica shows that President Obama hasn’t kept up with his predecessors in filling them. A greater share of presidentially appointed positions that require Senate confirmation were sitting vacant at the end of Obama’s first term than at the end of Bill Clinton’s or George W. Bush’s first terms.

At least 68 of the positions remain vacant, including 43 that have been vacant for more than a year.

The vacancies have been spread across dozens of different departments and agencies, with some hit harder than others.  At the Department of the Interior, for instance, six of its 18 appointed positions were vacant at the end of Obama’s first term. The department had three vacancies midway through Clinton’s presidency and only one midway through Bush’s.

The lack of appointed leaders can create problems. Too many vacancies can put agencies “in stand-down, waiting for policymakers to show up,” said Terry Sullivan, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina who has studied appointments.

Acting heads of agencies “don’t make any big decisions,” said Cal Mackenzie, a professor of government at Colby College who has studied appointments since the 1970s. “Your authority is not going to be recognized in the same way a Senate-confirmed appointee is going to be recognized.”

Overall, more than 13 percent of presidentially appointed positions hadn’t been filled at the end of Obama’s first term, compared with around 10 percent for Bush and 11 percent for Clinton. While the uptick compared with the Bush administration may sound small, it translates into dozens more vacant positions.

The data comes from the Plum Book, a directory of federal appointees released every four years. (We started looking at the data after it was flagged by the New York Times’ Derek Willis.) The data doesn’t include the vast majority of judicial appointments, for which vacancies have also risen under Obama.

The White House’s Office of Presidential Personnel didn’t respond to a request for comment.

So who’s to blame for the unfilled positions?

“I think President Obama bears some responsibility and the Senate bears some responsibility,” said Anne Joseph O’Connell, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, whose research shows that Obama filled fewer positions in departments and executive agencies in his first year in the White House than any of the last four presidents.

Obama has been slower to make appointments, she said, and the Senate slower to confirm them.

Republicans have increasingly created roadblocks for nominees.

For instance, Senate Republicans blocked Obama’s nominees to the Election Assistance Commission — an agency charged with aiding voting that House Republicans voted to get rid of in 2011.

And Chuck Hagel this month became the only the fifth cabinet nominee to face a filibuster. (It was Democrats, however, who first toughened up the confirmation process, under Republican presidents in the 1970s and 1980s.)

At the same time, the number of positions the president must appoint has swelled. Obama signed a bill in August that removed the Senate confirmation requirement from some 166 positions, but the president still must fill over 1,000 appointed positions — a task that can prove overwhelming.

Clay Johnson, a Republican who headed the Presidential Personnel Office director under George W. Bush, said there simply are not enough White House staff to select and vet nominees, especially in the early days of an administration. Senate clashes over appointments, in his view, are less of a problem.

“There is little dispute that the current nominations process has grown too cumbersome and complicated, in some cases discouraging qualified individuals from seeking leadership positions,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, said on the House floor when the bill passed.

Despite the recent efforts to reform appointments, the growing fierceness of Senate confirmation battles has fueled worries that it might get harder to find qualified nominees willing to endure them.

Consider William Boarman, whom Obama tapped to lead the Government Printing Office in 2010.

Boarman, a former printer, had headed the printing, publishing and media workers section of the Communications Workers of America union when he was nominated. He had advised the White House on choosing the next public printer — as the head of the GPO is known — before they offered him the nomination. He cleared the Senate Rules and Administration Committee unanimously in July 2010.

“I thought it was going to a cakewalk,” he said of the confirmation process.

But Boarman’s nomination failed to come up for a vote. (Roll Call reported that a senator had placed a hold on it.) Obama circumvented the delay by giving Boarman a recess appointment while the Senate was away in December, allowing him to take the post while the administration nominated him a second time.

As public printer, Boarman took steps to modernize the agency and cut its costs. He slashed bonuses — “which were being paid pretty liberally when I got there,” he said — offered buyouts to workers and introduced the GPO’s first e-books.

Boarman’s recess appointment lasted only until the end of Congress’s current session, however.

Obama had nominated Boarman again in January 2011, but his nomination continued to languish in the Senate. As Roll Call first reported, Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Johnny Isakson of Georgia, both Republicans, were holding up Boarman’s nomination because they were unhappy that a nominee to the National Labor Relations Board had not been confirmed by the Senate.

Boarman’s nomination never came up for a vote. He turned on C-SPAN on Dec. 17, the last day Boarman could be confirmed, and found out he was out of a job.

The GPO is now run by the acting public printer, Davita Vance-Cooks, whom Boarman has hired after he arrived. But he said he doesn’t think an acting head can lead as effectively as a Senate-confirmed one.

“When you’re a political appointee,” Boarman said, “you feel that you’re empowered” to make the kind of changes that Boarman made when he arrived. “I don’t think you can do that as an acting,” he added.

Boarman, who left his well-paid union position to serve as public printer and is now retired, said he worried that the arduous confirmation process would make it hard to find good candidates: “If this continues to happen — and I have no reason to believe that it won’t — people aren’t going to serve.”

Correction: This story mistakenly stated that Democrats had filibustered the two previous cabinet nominees to face a filibuster. In fact, Ronald Reagan’s nominee for commerce secretary in 1987, C. William Verity, was filibustered by Republicans over his views on trade with the Soviet Union. And according to Sarah Binder, a George Washington University professor who has studied the filibuster, the tactic has been used against five cabinet nominees.

ProPublica’s Cora Currier contributed reporting to this story. 

This is an exercise in camouflaging the fact that the Republicans block everything Obama tries beneath an overburden of manufactured accusations leveled at Obama.

What - you expected me to call it “journalism”?

Hit it right on the head Steve.  So much for the so called ” liberal media ” which is of course owned, operated, and patronized by members of the GOP.

One agency in particular, the new Elizabeth warren inspired CFPB (Consumer Financial Protection Bureau) will DEFINITELY NOT have a senate confirmed head unless the composition of the senate gives the dems a super majority. The GOP has made it clear they’ll continue blocking any CFPB nominee until Congress passes a law to revamp (gut) the agency. Obama, via recess appointments, has already re-nominated Cordray to stay on as the CFPB director but his appointment runs out at the end of the year.

If Obama spent more time as the POTUS instead of running around the country, at great cost to the tax payer, he just might be able to lead as his office requires, The Senate has enjoyed a Democratic majority during his term. Obama is a political animal and he is more interested in destroying the Republicans than governing. Perhaps those he has tried to get nominated could have been better chosen, Hegel comes to mind. All though he was cleared by the Senate, he was controversial, as I see it Mr. Obama was playing politics once again trying to make the Republicans look bad, Hagel was a poor choice. Perhaps some of the heads of agency’s need not be filled instead the agency’s should be looked at as possible duplicity and be on the chopping block. You mentioned Boarmon do you suppose that was a pay back to unions?

An aside, the printing office irks me. Every year they do a mass mailing of the Medicare and You book to both current enrolled and new ones coming on board. both. Has to cost millions. These days info available online and if they must send out hard copy why not just the Whats New. E-book for medicare is good.

Perhaps Obama sees the futility of making appointments with the 112th and now the 113th Congress.  What’s the point.  It is unconscionable that these vagrant government servants merely went to D.C. to cash in - not to “get off their ass.”  Boehner, I’m including you and your DO NOTHING COLLEAGUES!  What a projection to call the Senate bums.  The House is full of flagrant bums.

I wouldn’t call the Congress bums—I just might call the Executive Branch and Congress a bunch of folks lacking of a moral compass. It is also fair to remind that our government was set up with checks and balances. For that I think what is going on is a good thing.

* By Cutting unnecessary operational costs of digitally well connected governmentl offices, it’s wise to leave those higher-salary-posts vacant instead of filling out those with selected names of worthless individuals with dumb, so called noblemen-links in outdated, nepotistic styled politics.
The global milestone-setting 21st century’s new-generation’s “positively world changing Biden-Obama Mission” is bound to continue in full swing beyond 13-20.
Days of old (secretly masterplanning) thugs in disguise of religious or so claimed noble-men, royals of deserts etc. with Billions of $$$$$$$$$$$$$ {obtained by manipulation of men-made laws in jargonalized old books (un-dynamic or now uselessly non-sense), minerals, natural chemicals & some special, social products} are becoming gloomy faster than ever and to be understood by rapidly evolving newer-generations as ‘nothing more than funny history of belief-blind old folks that confusingly got absolutely wrong image of religion-less, unbiased, neutral, ever-lasting, Omni-present Cosmic Creator’.

I do agree partially with the statement, “What - you expected me to call it “journalism”?” because there are scores of examples of good journalism on this website. Now saying that this is an “exercise in camouflaging the fact that the Republicans block everything” isn’t really accurate. Yes the republicans are blocking everything, well sure they are, but did you expect them to just be okay with everything that a liberal proposes? We are talking about the Liberal of Liberals by the way. This article, at least the way it came across to me, isn’t camouflaging anything, it’s openly outlining the fact that the Republicans do try and block as much as they can.

You should stop referring to what we now know as “Media” to be either Liberal or Conservative and start referring to it all as a “Big Joke”. Seriously what has become of this country and its media, it’s just ridiculous and makes me laugh more often than not.

Forget Checks and Balances, forget about any of the principles our government was set up on for that matter, it’s all gone to shit! watch the “news” for Christ sake….. oh wait… They can’t be trusted either, huh? Hahaha

Traveling around the country and to other countries and spend tax dollars doing so isn’t just Obama (although he is just terrible in my opinion), that’s been every sorry excuse for a president since who knows when.

@pgillenw The Republicans block nearly everyone Obama appoints.  They can block a person by putting a ‘hold’, or exercising their right to fillibuster.  Unlike ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” though, they can ‘filibuster’ by making a call to a clerk.  They do have to stand for hours at a time and talk about anything they want.  That is a real fillibuster.  Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont did a real eight hour fillibuster last year and he’s about 84 years old. Your young whippersnappers of 60 certainly can beat that, or maybe not.

Does this smell to anybody else (not the article, but the larger debate) like an attempt to remove large swaths of the government bureaucracy from public oversight?

“Oh, it’s just so hard and tedious to get all of these nominations approved.  We should be able to push anybody through, regardless of their qualifications or philosophies…”

It would make it far easier to cram a few more Goldman execs into the Treasury, Monsanto and Pfizer execs into the FDA, and so forth, without the media being able to cover it until after the fact.

Rodney Hoffman

Feb. 28, 2013, 1:10 p.m.

We need a Constitutional Amendment saying that all Presidential nominations become effective in 90 calendar days unless vetoed by the Senate.

Rodney Hoffman, Your post is ridiculous.

Rodney,  Post makes no sense.  In this case, the Democratic Majority in the Senate would have confirmed Obama’s re-election.  I’m not sure there was a point to your post.  If so, please explain.

Many too many positions are subject to Presidential appointment.  A good goal would be to cut back the number to one position per agency.

Rodney Hoffman

Feb. 28, 2013, 9:02 p.m.

(answering Laura) My suggested Constitutional Amendment has nothing to do with any Presidential election.  It would simply force the damn Senate to VOTE on Presidential appointments instead of endlessly delaying a vote.  It would apply no matter which party holds the Presidency or the Senate majority.  It would end the tyranny of the minority, where even a single Senator can put a indefinite hold on a Presidential nomination.

(to pgillenw)  You’ll have to explain before I can reply.

Rodney Hoffman

Feb. 28, 2013, 10:02 p.m.

1. In the context of this article, I thought it would be clear what I was talking about.
2. Strictly speaking, these people are not “appointees” until they’ve been confirmed by the Senate.  The Constitution says, “[The President] shall nominate, and, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint ...”  So, before confirmation, they’re Presidential nominations.

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