Unconfirmed: Why Reducing the Number of Senate-confirmed Positions Can Make Government More Effective

Aug 09, 2021
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The federal workforce is composed of about 2 million civil servants who provide continuity across presidential administrations and another 4,000 political appointees who are selected by the president. About 1,200 of these political appointees require Senate approval. Despite presidential interest in filling positions across government to advance political and policy objectives, the number of Senate-confirmed positions, along with the complexity of the appointment process, has resulted in a slowdown of confirmations and an increase in vacancies. This situation limits agency operations and reduces the president's capacity to govern and the Senate's power to hold officials accountable.

Using appointments data from the Political Appointee Tracker compiled by the Partnership for Public Service and The Washington Post along with expert analysis, this report highlights key trends in filling Senate-confirmed positions and in the nomination and confirmation process. 

These trends generate serious barriers to government effectiveness, responsiveness and agility. The Senate, in collaboration with the executive branch, has occasionally taken steps to reduce the number of political appointees and make the confirmation process more efficient. However, the number of Senate-confirmed positions poses a daunting challenge for any president, often leading to vacancies that undermine the execution of responsibilities that Congress has established and the taxpayer's fund.

This report offers seven potential approaches to streamline the political appointment process for those positions requiring Senate confirmation and assesses when each of these approaches could be most useful and feasible, setting the stage for a reduction or rescoping of Senate-confirmed positions in favor of longer term, nonconfirmed or career alternatives while preserving the Senate's constitutional role and oversight function.