A small army of administrators and high-level staff are required to operate the departments and agencies of the U.S. government. While the bulk of administrators are career civil servants, the high-level positions are filled through the appointments process. Presidents, who wish to see their policy goals implemented, have a strong incentive to control who is appointed to the key posts. For many executive branch positions (approximately 1,100), Senate confirmation is required.

Despite the fact that conflict between the president and the Senate would seem likely under these conditions, few nominees are denied confirmation. In fact, presidential nominees are often confirmed with overwhileming majorities in the Senate. The success of presidents is attributed to their anticipation of the Senate's wishes and, for many positions, apparent Senate indifference. There are exceptions. Some nominees have to wait month for consideration and some are never given a vote. The high presidential success rate then masks a pattern of strategic delay, which is where the conflict between the two branches actually exists.

This study examines which candidates are delayed. It is important because it is not well understood. We know more about inter-branch relations in other realms of interaction, such as legislative politics and judicial nominations.

In this study, previous theories concerning partisanship are updated to take into account how agency-level characteristics may influence outcomes. For example, some agencies are considered to be more silimar to and in greater agreement with a give president than other agencies. These updated theories will then be tested using an expansive data set covering individual appointments to executive agencies and independent regulatory commissions between 1981 and 2010.

With regards to broader impacts, the results of this study may be of interest to policy makers. The data developed in this project will be made available to the large scholarly community and the public.

Project Report

Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE Presidents have a strong incentive to control executive agencies through the nomination of like-minded and responsive individuals to leadership posts. The Senate, however, must provide its advice and consent for appointments to these key positions. As these separate institutions are forced to share the power to nominate, the opportunity for inter-branch conflict and partisan obstruction arises. While most nominees are successfully confirmed, this success rate tends to mask wide variation in the length of time it takes the Senate to make a decision. Delay of critical nominees can influence the character of an agency while hampering the policy ambitions of a president. In this way the power to delay can be as important as the power to reject a nominee. Building on prior literature, I suggest a conditional theory of delay based upon the ideological predispositions of agencies relative to a president. In particular, I predict that obstruction will be most frequent in agencies with ideological predispositions opposed to that of a president as well as for nominations to independent regulatory boards. To test these theories, I created a data set on nearly 8,000 executive nominations spanning three decades from 1987 to 2010. These data contain detailed information on the timing of nominations, confirmations, and failures as well as key information concerning political contexts and agency-level characteristics. Using this novel data set, the project tests hypotheses related to delay, failure, and ultimately consider the merits of potential reforms. The findings based on these data are likely to impact the study of executive nominations in several ways. First, this study provides for essential theory testing with respect to agency-level characteristics. The study clearly shows that much of the dilatory activity is concentrated in independent regulatory commissions where vacancies can create the most significant changes in policy output. Furthermore, the theory that the Senate will delay nominations to agencies with a political predisposition opposed to a president is supported. The findings support a conception of the executive nominations process that takes the political value of time and reversion points into consideration rather than focusing primarily on potential scandals and disqualifications when considering delay and failure. These results help to explain the context and history of conflict over executive nominations as well as why some nominees are delayed or fail while other, seemingly similar, nominees are not. Second, this study is the first to find significantly lower levels of presidential success in the executive nominations process as well as the first to incorporate lower-level nominations into a complete analysis of the executive nominations process. These two traits are connected as prior studies of only higher-level nominations tended to obscure lower success rates. When taking lower-level positions into account, presidential success in the executive nominations process drops from estimates of 90 to 95 percent success to 70 or 80 percent. These findings may thus change how we view the executive nominations process from a story of overwhelming presidential success to one of inter-branch conflict. This project and its findings address the broader issues of governmental efficiency and responsiveness. Delays in the nomination process are addressed by popular media outlets and as such constitute an issue within the public debate about good governance and the harmful effects of partisan obstruction. As such, this project is of general interest to society as a means of understanding how to make bureaucratic agencies operate more smoothly. Bureaucratic agencies are an increasingly important element within the American policy-making process and as such it is critical to understand their functions and origins if we are to understand the government. The intellectual merit of this project lies in its contribution to our understanding of executive agencies within the context of separated institutions (Congress and the President) sharing power. Expanding our knowledge about high-level executive officials is important because while we tend to know a lot of detail about how members of Congress and the President are selected, their background, and how they function while in office, we know comparatively little about the people who help make policy on a daily basis while managing executive agencies. To fill this gap in knowledge, this project created a more detailed picture of the selection process of high-level executive officials. Such information is critical to understanding the logic of the nominations process, the motivations behind senatorial delay, and may provide further answers to questions of bureaucratic effectiveness and the role of appointees in the policy-making process.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Brian D. Humes
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Washington University
Saint Louis
United States
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