by Jason Briefel and Maggi Molina
A president will appoint more than 4,000 individuals to serve in an administration, yet “there is no single source of data on political appointees serving in the executive branch that is publicly available, comprehensive, and timely,” according to the Government Accountability Office in a March 2019 report.
Instead, these positions are compiled and published exactly once every four years in a congressional document known as the Plum Book (officially the United States Government Policy and Supporting Positions). This book is published only in December after a presidential election (before the president even gets sworn in) and includes important data for each position, including title, salary and location.
The information is rapidly out of date. It is never updated. There is no easy way to know which positions are filled or vacant, or who has filled them.
The recently introduced PLUM Act (H.R. 7107 and S.3896) would modernize the Plum Book by requiring the Director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) “to establish and maintain a public directory of the individuals occupying Government policy and supporting positions.” The website must be “in a searchable, sortable, downloadable, and machine readable format’’ and updated monthly.
The PLUM Act would make it possible to understand which offices are filled and which offices have vacancies, how long those offices have been vacant, and how that information has changed over time. Publication may also increase visibility for these job opportunities and encourage a wider pool of diverse candidates to pursue these positions.
The federal government now employs well over 4,000 political appointees, with more than 1,200 requiring Senate confirmation. Senate confirmation involves significant congressional oversight into the individual appointed to a position and how they plan to use their role. Yet beyond those Senate-confirmed appointees, there is extremely limited transparency or visibility into the roles and powers these appointed individuals carry.
These political appointees also have unique interactions with career federal officials that warrants increased transparency. The overall size of the federal government workforce has been relatively stable for 60 years – around 2 million civilian federal employees. What has dramatically changed over the same time period is the number of political appointments – spoils jobs or “plum positions” – across all levels of the government. When President Kennedy was in office, there were fewer than 1,000 political appointees, and they were appropriately placed in policy-determining roles that communicate presidential policy objectives to lower levels of government.
The increase in political appointees has created unique challenges for career federal leaders in the Senior Executive Service (SES). The establishment of the SES was a keystone feature of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, with career federal executives intended to serve as a bridge between political leadership and the broader federal workforce. That role is increasingly being diminished or challenged by political appointees who are not only appropriately calling shots on policy matters, but also affecting operational decisions, often with little consideration for future implications on the agency or program.
An order from the lowest level political appointee overrules a senior career official, leaving the officials with the most experience with operations unable to utilize their expertise.
The right to direct policy is the prerogative of any administration, within the limits established by Congress and pursuant to federal law, but there should be a corresponding transparency requirement so the public knows who is serving in these positions, especially those not requiring Senate confirmation. The continuously-updated repository of information about political appointees required under the PLUM Act would facilitate independent review and analysis related to political appointees. Most importantly, it would provide Congress and taxpayers with a tool to hold administrations and their appointees accountable.