What to do Between Nomination and Confirmation: Insights for Political Appointees
Interviews with dozens of previous officeholders offer guidance for handling what can be a very difficult period.
Over the next several months, the Biden administration will nominate over 700 individuals for government appointments requiring Senate confirmation and then shepherd them through the confirmation process. Here’s what those nominees should expect, based on interviews with 65 Obama administration appointees who offered the following insights for future appointees on how to spend the time between nomination and confirmation.
Be Prepared to Wait
The confirmation process can be lengthy. The Obama sub-Cabinet appointees interviewed experienced wait times ranging from eight days to 358 days, with three months being the average. One study of all Obama administration nominees found that the average length of time between nomination and confirmation (from 2009 to 2014) was 127 days.
Erica Groshen, former commissioner at the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, had a long wait for her appointment. At the time of her nomination, she was a vice president in the Research and Statistics Group at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. After her nomination in mid-February 2012, Groshen recalls, “I started spending my time finishing up my work at the Federal Reserve. I was put on ‘garden leave,’ which removed me from day to day activity. In July 2012, I was told that my nomination would be held up until after the presidential election in November. So I went back to work, doing some short-term projects … I was prepared for the possibility of a delay, and fortunately, I knew that if it ultimately did not work out, I could stay at the Federal Reserve. I focused on getting my work and home in order. I also spent time considering my living options and preparing a budget for Washington.” Groshen was confirmed in January 2013, nearly 11 months after her nomination.
Unlike Groshen, Terry Garcia’s experience did not end as well. In May 2011, Garcia was nominated to be deputy secretary of Commerce. When nominated, Garcia was an executive vice president at the National Geographic Society. His nomination, along with several other Commerce Department nominations, was held up by the Senate in order to put pressure on the Obama White House to send three free trade agreements to Congress for approval. In October 2011, Garcia was reported to have become frustrated with the continued delay and asked that his nomination be withdrawn. An Obama administration official told Reuters, “He has been held up for no specific objection to him, his qualifications, or background. We’ve had this happen with a lot of our nominees, where there’s an objection raised that has nothing to do with their qualifications.”
Mum's the Word
Groshen summed up this period well: “I was told what not to do. I was basically told to avoid doing anything public and not to talk to anyone.” The Groshen experience was typical for many of those interviewed. All agreed that this was a difficult time. Prior to setting a date for a confirmation hearing, there will likely be little interaction between the appointee and their new department. Federal regulations prohibit nominees from having office space prior to confirmation.
Sloan Gibson, former deputy secretary at the Veterans Affairs Department, said, “The time between nomination and confirmation was frustrating. Department officials could not speak to me and I was not getting information from the department. In this period, I did everything I could to prepare myself for the job. When we started getting ready for the confirmation hearing, I (finally) met with people in the department.”
Talk to Predecessors
David Stevens, former commissioner of the Federal Housing Administration, did his homework for the new position while still working at his prior position. “I would spend weekends with binders to learn more about the department. I would also make phone calls to talk with people about the position. These phone calls were very helpful to me. You need to use your pre-confirmation time wisely. You should talk to previous incumbents and find out about their experience. I used the time to become as knowledgeable on issues as possible and find as many resources—both people and written materials—as I could.”
Nearly all of those interviewed spent time talking with their predecessors. Many strongly advised seeking out predecessors from all previous administrations, regardless of party affiliation. Leon Rodriguez, former director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, recalls, “Regarding predecessors, I talked to Ali Mayorkas (my immediate predecessor) and two Bush (Republican) Administration appointees to this job. Ali gave me a fresh perspective on the agency. I had been an enforcement guy. I found my conversations with the Bush administration appointees helpful. They told me that on a certain level, this agency is a factory—it’s a huge organization with a huge amount of output. Part of the director’s job is to make sure it works. While it does enforcement and legal affairs, it was a more complicated agency than just enforcement.”
Today, it is much easier to obtain information about an agency than in the old days. While nominees ultimately will receive briefing books in advance of their confirmation hearings, many nominees initially will be on their own.
“I have been confirmed twice for presidential appointments,” recalls Kathryn Sullivan, former deputy administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “The confirmation process was similar in both instances, but my pre-confirmation preparations were very different. Prior to my first appointment, my parent agency detailed me to the Office of the Administrator of NOAA. The projects I took on for former Administrator John Knauss served as a great introduction to NOAA programs and issues.” But the second time, in 2010, she said, “I relied on the Internet for my preparatory research. The variety and volume of materials available online—budgets, program evaluations, independent review reports, and more—allowed me to become quite familiar with NOAA’s current operations and challenges.”
During this interim period, the nominees reviewed Government Accountability Office reports, congressional testimony, speeches by former leaders, and comments by lawmakers and other politicians of both parties. Because of their prior research, many needed less time getting up to speed during their initial time on the job and had more time to spend on executing their agenda.
In addition to talking to predecessors, many also sought out experts with different perspectives on their new position. Peter Appel, former administrator for research and innovative technology at the Transportation Department, said, “I had been in the transportation business for 20 years, so I reached out to the ‘wise’ people in the profession to get their perspectives. I also talked to congressional staff.”
After the initial flurry of nominations in January and February, the backlog and wait times for nominees will likely grow. It’s imperative that they put the time to good use so that they can hit the ground running after confirmation.
Mark A. Abramson is president of Leadership Inc. This article is adapted from Succeeding as a Political Executive: 50 Insights from Experience (with Paul R. Lawrence). His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.