How Presidents Use Vacancies and Temporary Appointments to Achieve Policy Priorities

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Kumar Ramanathan, covers the new article by Christina M. Kinane, Yale University:Control without Confirmation: The Politics of Vacancies in Presidential Appointments

When President Obama launched an ambitious new counterterrorism policy involving increased humanitarian engagement in 2015, he charged the Department of State’s Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights with implementing the policy. When President Trump entered office two years later and outlined a starkly different counterterrorism policy, we may have expected that his own administration’s Under Secretary would have been tasked with designing and implementing the new approach. But this was not the case: the position was left vacant for most of the new administration’s first year.

Vacancies in senior executive branch positions that require appointees to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate are not uncommon. Between the presidencies of Carter and Obama, a quarter of these key positions were left vacant. Data from 1996 to 2016 shows that presidents did not make any nominations for nearly 40% of key position vacancies, and filled about 60% with temporary “interim” appointees that do not require Senate confirmation. Presidents have had the ability to make interim appointments since 1868, but the period that these appointees can serve has increased dramatically in recent decades. Today, an interim appointee can fill the position for 210 days after the vacancy began and upwards of 720 days if the respective nominations are withdrawn, rejected, or returned.

Why do presidents choose to leave certain positions empty or fill them with interim appointees while submitting formal nominations to the Senate for other positions?

In a new article in the American Political Science Review, Christina Kinane argues that the prevalence of vacancies and interim appointees is not simply the result of neglect or delay. Rather, presidents make strategic decisions to leave positions empty or fill them with interim appointees in order to achieve their policy priorities.

To analyze presidential decision-making, Kinane develops a new dataset. She collects data on whether each PAS position across the fifteen major executive departments were kept empty, filled with an interim appointee, or filled with a confirmed appointee during 1977-2016. To measure the policy priorities of presidents and Congress for a given agency, she examines whether presidential budget requests and congressional budgets proposed increasing, decreasing, or maintaining agency budgets.

In a statistical analysis of the newly constructed dataset, Kinane finds that presidents are much more likely to make interim appointments when their policy priority is to increase agency action. If a president has a goal of expanding an agency’s policy reach and faces a Senate with different preferences, using interim appointment powers enables the president to execute their policy priorities while evading Senate oversight. This is precisely what Kinane finds taking place during the period under study.

“Kinane’s analysis shows that we need to look beyond formal appointment processes to understand how presidents exercise power over the vast executive branch of the U.S. government. “

On the other hand, Kinane finds that when presidents’ goals are to contract an agency, they are more likely to leave vacant positions in that agency empty. If the Senate disagrees with the president’s goal of agency contraction, leaving the position empty is preferable to bargaining with the Senate over a nominee. Even if the Senate aligns with the president’s preference for contraction, leaving the position empty is preferable because it gives watchdog groups and vested interests less ability to pressure the agency.

This pattern of leaving positions vacant, however, has changed since the passage of the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998. This law enabled interim appointees to serve six times longer than they were allowed before. Armed with new power, presidents have been more likely since 1998 to make interim appointments to vacant positions even when their goal is to contract the agency, since the costs of doing so are much lower.

Kinane’s analysis shows that we need to look beyond formal appointment processes to understand how presidents exercise power over the vast executive branch of the U.S. government. By leaving certain agency positions empty, presidents can reduce an agency’s policy reach with little oversight from the Senate or the public. The growing ability to make interim appointments instead of pursuing Senate confirmation also increases the power of the president. President Trump admitted as much in a 2019 interview with Face the Nation, stating “I like acting [appointees] because I can move so quickly, gives me more flexibility.” Thus, to observe and understand presidential power, we must pay as much attention to inaction and temporary action as we do to the formal appointment process.

  • Kumar Ramanathan is a doctoral candidate in political science at Northwestern University and will be a doctoral fellow at the American Bar Foundation beginning in the fall of 2020. His dissertation investigates how liberal politicians in northern Democratic Party contested and constructed a civil rights legislative agenda during the 1930s-60s, and aims to explain the origins and limitations of racial liberalism as it emerged among these party elites. His research agenda also includes a set of projects on the impact of civil rights law and policy on the politics of social policy after the 1960s, and collaborative projects on immigrant political participation and urban politics. At Northwestern, Kumar is affiliated with the Chicago Democracy Project, the Comparative Historical Social Sciences Working Group, and the Program in Legal Studies. He received his B.A. in political science and philosophy from Tufts University.
  • Article details: American Political Science Review First View , pp. 1 – 16, “Control without Confirmation: The Politics of Vacancies in Presidential Appointments” by Christina M. Kinane, Yale University.
  • About the APSA Public Scholarship Program.