No, the Trump Transition Is Not Far Behind That of Previous Presidents
Trump has moved 23 percent faster than Obama and Bush in filling cabinet, but lower-tier positions are lagging, analysis shows.
The Trump transition team—the first to operate under the 2015 Presidential Transition Improvements Act—assembled an array of numbers to showcase what it terms its rapid and efficient pace. As then-Vice President-elect Mike Pence summarized the day before the Inauguration:
- 21 of 21 Cabinet appointments were made before the ceremony;
- 87,000 applications to serve were reviewed;
- 370 interviews for high-impact positions were conducted;
- 321 landing team members were sent to 39 agencies;
- More than 1,200 pages of policy papers were produced;
- Listening sessions with 1,200 organizations were held;
- 25,000 pieces of mail were processed with 7,000 responses sent; and
- 20 percent of the transition budget ($1.2 million) was returned to the treasury.
Such “firsts” have their place and contrast well against predecessors, according to Government Executive interviews with good-government groups that monitor the transition. But the Trump team’s decision to focus on high-visibility Cabinet nominations may have left it behind the recommended pace for the remaining 4,000 hirings still needed.
According to the nonpartisan White House Transition Project, which compiles major appointments and compares them with those of previous administrations, Trump has moved 23 percent faster in naming his Cabinet than presidents Obama, George W. Bush and Clinton. But when it comes to naming White House staff, Trump lags 5 percent.
“They filled out the top and chose to do the Cabinet first, then the White House staff,” said Martha Joynt Kumar, a Towson University political scientist who studies transitions. “Administrations when they come in are generally interested in policy first, and management second,” she said, a possible exception being George W. Bush, who had an interest in management as governor of Texas.
“Trump wants to shake things up, so management in the sense of policy is important for him, how to make the government work better and leaner than is currently the case,” she said. “But I think it’s a tall order because there are so many constituents for each department, agency and subunit, which have a stake in keeping things as they are.”
Members of Congress also “often oppose reorganizations of their committees,” Kumar added. “It’s an uphill battle” that has frustrated past presidents.
“If you look at the past, the Trump people are not that far behind,” said Max Stier, president and CEO of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. The tracker his group keeps in partnership with The Washington Post shows that Trump has named only 28 of 659 key appointments that should be a top priority.
“But it’s still the first inning,” he cautioned, noting that Obama at this time had nominated only 34 people in his first wave. “The comparison shouldn’t be with the past but with what’s necessary for running government effectively—no prior effort has gotten as far along as it need to,” Stier said. “Especially with the world being more and more dangerous, it becomes an imperative. History can be a guidepost,” he said, but the appointments process should be based on “what needs to get done.”
Teresa Gerton, newly installed president and CEO of the National Academy of Public Administration, said it is still early for a verdict on Trump’s efforts, though she has noticed a large number of people submitting resumes to the Trump team. She “hopes that all the Cabinet positions are finished quickly because probably most would say that often the deputy and sub-agency heads are almost more important, doing the work as the government goes on,” she said, adding a recommendation that the Trump people make good use of NAPA’s political appointee survival guide.
“Those lucky career civil servants holding down their day jobs” have to fill in on key leadership decisions. “It gets to be a busy time,” said Gerton, who has been an executive at the Labor and Defense departments. “The minimum work of the government goes on, but there won’t be substantive changes until more positions are filled.”
Gerton said Trump’s imposition of a hiring freeze on the federal workforce could be counterproductive. “Having been through many fed hiring freezes before, I appreciate the intent of using it as a way to hold action,” she said. But the challenge for agencies is that the vacancies you have are not the vacancies you’d be able to live with in the long run.” If, say, there are 100 personnel slots, and five are empty, she said, under the hiring freeze, “you don’t’ get to realign the five to [spread] the workload, so you’re stuck with them.” A little more flexibility on how the freeze is allocated, Gerton added, “might help be more effective in delivering services.
On Monday the partnership released a set of six critical goals for Trump’s first 100 days. “It is critical for Trump to get his top 100 departmental and agency leaders chosen, thoroughly vetted and confirmed by the Senate as quickly as possible to ensure the effective operation of the government,” it said. “Historically, the appointment and confirmation process has been slow and has required more time and attention than anticipated; as a result, administrations have been plagued by long-standing vacancies that have impeded government effectiveness. So far, only 2 leaders of Trump’s Cabinet are confirmed, in comparison to the Obama and George W. Bush administrations who each had seven leaders confirmed on Inauguration Day.”
The group recommends that Trump implement a comprehensive management agenda, encourage multi-agency projects and engage Congress proactively, the statement said. It also urges that he build a constructive relationship with the federal workforce. “Joint teams of political appointees and senior career executives should be formed at the agencies and departments to drive the administration’s priorities and manage operations,” it recommended.