CongressLine: Presidential Patronage

Every four years, and particularly when a new president prepares to enter office, a mad scramble begins for thousands of presidentially appointed offices within the government. The selection process has evolved over the past couple hundred years and every position outside of the new president’s personal staff requires Senate approval. [Editor’s note: see also the 2008-2009 Presidential Transition Resources website and the Presidential Transition Guide to Federal Human Resources Management.]

The vast majority of the employees of the federal government are career, professional employees. These positions are not subject to presidential appointment and they toil in the federal service no matter who is the president. The top-level positions, however, are dubbed “political” and are presidentially appointed. A list of these positions ia available in a publication referred to as the Plum Book. The title of the book holds another meaning besides the color of the front page; these positions often are considered political plums.

The president is free to select almost anyone that meets his own criteria for these positions, minus some requirements for adjusting personal finances and security clearances. Political patronage is one of the key perks of the Office of President. Over the years the criteria for selection have evolved from appointments as raw political partisan to a more nuanced political partisan and experience combination. In the nineteenth century it was not uncommon to see a line being formed outside the White House after an election filled with office-seekers looking for jobs in the federal government. Many left happy with posts such as local postmasters or customs jobs. The line still forms today, but it is not so obvious, and most modern presidents have some process of vetting and selecting candidates for the thousands of appointed positions.

It is not entirely neutral however. Big campaign fundraisers and supporters are still offered jobs, particularly ambassadorships. The ambassadors to the major European capitals are normally dear friends of the president or major party fundraisers, not career Foreign Service officers. Lower level boards and commissions are also filled with partisan friends and supporters who may or may not have some tie to the role they are offered.

Competence was often a secondary factor for an appointment, but it has been a larger consideration in modern times, especially as the federal government’s role has become more complex and incompetence therefore more dangerous, if not disastrous. But even as competence is a larger factor in the selection, eminent, notable and accomplished people can still be considered cronies.

President-elect Barack Obama is now processing thousands of applications for positions and the vetting process has become much more cumbersome. This is due to a fundamental shift in the visibility of government actions that readers of this column should appreciate. Government actions are much more open than they have been in the past; bloggers blog continuously, cable television has entire channels monitoring the process, and documents and actions are available nearly instantly to anyone who cares. The backgrounds of the people selected are transmitted instantly to the world; embarrassing details of nominees can hobble the effectiveness of a new administration. In other words, quaint nineteenth century patronage meets the twenty-first century blogoshere.

The president’s cabinet is the pinnacle of the appointed positions. Any analysis of any of the past presidents would be incomplete if you did not analyze whom he selected for the cabinet positions. The cabinet itself is a customary creation; it has no actual calendar of Senate executive actions and actions are also published in the Congressional Record, but anticipating when actions will happen normally requires a source that follows the Senate in closer detail.

While the Senate may have vetted nominees informally in the past, the new media world of the Internet and cable television now does a lot of the work of the Senate beforehand. Old-fashioned political horse-trading and cronyism, while still active, is now subject to the rude gaze of Internet bloggers and television pundits. This visibility and scrutiny can be quite overwhelming and greatly affects the selection and confirmation process. In the past the rude gaze of the public was limited to only the highest-level appointments, particularly Supreme Court justices. This limitation is gradually eroding to the point that even secondary positions at the Interior Department can be contested in the Senate.

If you are looking for a job, and you contributed to or worked for the Obama campaign and have some experience you are free to apply but remember the Senate will also have to pass judgment on you. If you do, you will be participating in one of the most time-honored aspects of the U.S. political system – patronage.

Posted in: Congress, Government Resources, Legislative