Personnel Is Policy: Why The New President Must Take Control Of TheExecutive Branch

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Personnel Is Policy: Why The New President Must Take Control Of TheExecutive Branch

January 8, 2001 13 min read
Robert E. Moffit
Senior Research Fellow, Center for Health and Welfare Policy
Moffit specializes in health care and entitlement programs, especially Medicare.

The transition team's inability to examine each department and agency closely should result in the new administration's political leadership relying more on the federal government's civil service employees. The Republican party's right wing will be horrified by this idea, but most Americans think the federal government plays an important role in many areas and want it to function effectively. Career government employees, on the whole, are experts in their fields and know more than any briefing book can offer. Forging early and close relationships between each department's new political leadership and its career staff will moderate any ideologically driven agendas and produce a better-functioning government. The briefing books will be hardly missed. 1

--Seth Harris, senior policy advisor at the 
Department of Labor under President Clinton

President-elect George W. Bush laid out a dream and a remarkably detailed policy agenda during his election campaign, with proposals ranging from substantial reform of Social Security and Medicare to ambitious changes in federal education policy and ways to reduce the historically high tax burden on the American people. Now he must focus on how to implement that agenda. The cacophony of advice he is receiving--from reducing his political appointments to cleaning house--has been remarkable.

In order to achieve his ambitious agenda, President Bush will need not only to build coalitions on Capitol Hill but also to move decisively to solidify commitment to his agenda within the executive branch. Because of the extended dispute over the election results, the President-elect has lost precious time in making the transition to the Oval Office. He faces historically unprecedented pressure in getting his team into place quickly and enabling them to do the necessary spade-work for new policies within federal agencies and departments. The President-elect must seize the initiative by making sure that the quality of his personnel managers--at the second and third tier positions in the Administration--matches his policy agenda. It is at these levels of government that the crucial details of policy will be formulated and executed.

To be successful, the new President must resist pressure to rely "more on the federal government's civil service employees" and to reduce his reliance on political appointments, particularly in key agencies that will play a major role in advancing his agenda. He must protect his right to select appointees based not only on their managerial prowess but also on their commitment to his policy agenda and their ability to advance, articulate, and defend it. He must also protect the integrity of the civil service and maintain a clear distinction between career and non-career functions.

Finally, the President must make sure that his team at the White House and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) initiate the essential training of the political appointees in their management responsibilities under the Civil Service Reform Act and the Hatch Act. Political appointees must be well-educated on the fundamental importance of the merit system and the laws, rules, and regulations that protect the civil service from political manipulation in order to ensure the smooth implementation of the President's agenda.


It is often said, correctly, that personnel is policy. The nexus between personnel management and policy management is therefore crucial. Good policies cannot be advanced without good, capable, and committed personnel to formulate, implement, aggressively promote, and steadfastly defend them. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald W. Reagan were noteworthy in this respect for making strong and effective Cabinet appointments and solid White House staffing decisions. Reagan, in particular, demonstrated the value of having trusted "lieutenants" in the policy and supporting roles of his Administration, giving his Cabinet appointees policy options, preparing regulatory initiatives and dealing effectively with Members of Congress and their staff.

Even under the pressure of a truncated transition period, George W. Bush must not allow himself to be deflected from the critical task of exercising his control over the executive branch. In particular, he must:

  • Move quickly to nominate Assistant Secretaries and to ensure the rapid appointment of Deputy Assistant Secretaries and non-career senior executives. Successfully moving an agenda for change will depend on the quality and commitment of the President's own political appointees below the Cabinet level--the key "lieutenants" in his Administration. The success of a presidency depends on making sure that the right people get appointed to the right jobs in the second and third tier policymaking positions.

  • Resist advice to leave careerists in top spots during the first days of his Administration.
    Because the transition period has been nearly cut in half by the uncertainty of the election outcome and attendant litigation, the President-elect is already under pressure to name fewer political appointees to various key positions in federal agencies and departments and to rely instead on senior career civil servants to carry out the responsibilities that otherwise would belong to his political appointees. Some of this advice comes from well-meaning advisors who do not appreciate the critical work of political appointees. In other cases, the advice comes from individuals who well understand that reducing the quality or quantity of political appointments will reduce Bush's chances of success in accomplishing his conservative agenda, effectively "moderat[ing] any ideologically driven agenda."2

Accepting such advice would be a profound mistake. For one thing, a politically neutral class of federal civil servants should not be given the task of formulating major policy changes, often drafted in partisan conventions. It is wrong to force career civil servants to don a mantle of political responsibility. Their credibility as neutral administrators of politically directed policies would be permanently compromised. It is the responsibility of political appointees to formulate and oversee the execution of the details of a partisan policy agenda ratified in an election, particularly an agenda for reversing existing policy or initiating a major policy change.

Moreover, the President must insist that only his political appointees, not career civil servants, speak to Congress on matters of policy. This will have an added benefit of making sure that Congress is clear on the message from the Administration. Members of Congress cannot legislate in a political vacuum, trying to second guess what the President may or may not do in the course of the legislative process.

  • Increase the number of Schedule C appointments. There are a total of 1.7 million active federal employees in the executive branch of the U.S. government. The total number of political appointees is tiny--about 1,200 executive level and senior management positions and another 1,500 or so support staff. The current number of political appointees thus constitutes about 0.15 percent of the executive branch workforce. Beyond that, there are numerous statutorily designated positions, such as federal attorneys and marshals and ambassadorial corps, that are also filled by presidential appointment.3 Conversely, in the legislative branch of the government, virtually all congressional employees are political appointees--with the exception of specialized agencies like the Architect of the Capitol, the Congressional Budget Office, the Congressional Research Service, and the General Accounting Office. Any reduction in the already tiny portion of the executive branch workforce appointed by the President would weaken his ability to implement his policy agenda.

The President already operates under strict limits in the appointment of executives. There are a total of 7,815 Senior Executive Service positions in the federal government. Under current law, no more than 10 percent of the Senior Executive Service can be filled with non-career appointments; and in any given federal agency or department, no more than 25 percent of the Senior Executive Service can be non-career appointments. So the new President and his team must make sure that he allocates as many executive staff as he can to agencies that will have the greatest role in carrying out his reform agenda. Beyond that, the President must make sure that his executives have a sufficient number of supportive confidential (Schedule C) appointees to help him carry out his agenda. The number of Schedule C personnel is set administratively by OPM, which reports directly to the President. Thus, OPM, under the authority of the President, can and should create the necessary positions for carrying out his agenda.

  • Hire non-career personnel on the basis of their commitment to his policy agenda.
    The President's ultimate success will in large part depend on the degree of commitment to his agenda among the people he appoints to ensure its success.

It is of course desirable that Cabinet Secretaries, Assistant Secretaries, and other agency heads have extensive managerial experience. But managerial experience or technical expertise--amply available within the ranks of the senior career civil service--is no substitute for commitment to the President's policies or his vision for America. Thus, the most important rule of presidential personnel management is to appoint people who are fully committed to the presidential agenda. Moreover, the appointees must be fully prepared to articulate that agenda, effectively defend it in the public forum, and oversee the correct execution of the President's specific policies by the career civil service.

  • Protect his appointive power against congressional encroachments.
    Respecting the prerogatives of the Chief Executive on personnel management issues has been a continuing challenge for many Members of Congress. Regardless of their differences with an Administration, Members of Congress must accept the right and duty of the President to appoint his own men and women.

Remarkably, Members of the 104th Congress, perhaps motivated by political hostility to President Bill Clinton, at one point unwisely proposed cutting the already small number of executive branch political appointees by one-third, intending to fill those positions with career civil servants. Such a wrongheaded policy not only would have weakened President Clinton's legitimate control over the execution of his policy agenda, but also would have undermined his overall management of the government.4 President Clinton successfully warded off this congressional encroachment on his authority. President George W. Bush should just as aggressively resist any attempt by Congress to limit his ability to appoint the number of political appointees that he thinks necessary or desirable to carry out his agenda.

  • Review non-career-to-career conversions.
    The new President and his team should recognize the tendency of every outgoing Administration, whether Democratic or Republican, to try to "burrow" non-career, or political, appointees into career positions. Political appointees of the Clinton Administration over the course of eight years have already burrowed into the federal civil service. With the unusually long election season, doubtless more Clinton political appointees have been seeking every loophole available in civil service law to burrow into the career bureaucracy and secure permanent civil service protection. Bush should ask his management team to review these conversions for their legality and then quickly rectify any career conversion actions that were inappropriate.

  • Train political appointees in their management responsibilities under the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978.
    Leading and managing the federal workforce is at the heart of efficient government. The Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA)5 was an historic attempt by President Jimmy Carter and Congress to make government more directly accountable, more efficient, and more effective. In the interest of sound management, President Carter had recognized the importance of performance and accountability in federal management--the two principles at the heart of the CSRA. President Reagan built upon this legislative achievement by implementing performance measures for the federal workforce. Both management and staff, career and non-career personnel are, under the CSRA, bound together by a performance appraisal and performance reward system that rewards those who successfully enact the policies set by the President within the laws of Congress. Political appointees are not only in charge of policy, but they are also an integral part of an effective management team.

  • Train political appointees in their responsibilities under the Hatch Act.
    In December 2000, Michael Hash, Acting Administrator of the Health Care Financing Administration (HCFA), unknowingly violated the Hatch Act, a federal law that prohibits federal employees, including political appointees, from engaging in partisan politics.6 Hash had hosted a political fundraiser at his home for a candidate for Congress. After realizing he had violated the Hatch Act, Hash himself reported the infraction to the Office of Special Counsel and resigned as part of a settlement.7

This episode, among others, shows that innocent mistakes by honest people can be costly. Political appointees must be aware that they are subject to the provisions of the Hatch Act even though they enjoy no civil service protection and are appointed outside of the regular rules that govern the competitive civil service. They must learn the provisions of the law and avoid "headline-making" mistakes that could embarrass the Administration or land themselves in serious trouble. The Hatch Act, enacted in 1939, was originally designed to erect a wall of separation between the federal civil service and partisan politics. The law can still easily trip up new appointees, even though President Clinton signed legislation into law in 1993 to weaken its provisions, reducing barriers to partisan political activities on the part of federal employees.8

  • Insist that new appointees maintain clear lines of demarcation between career and non-career employees and functions.
    Maintaining a clear distinction between career and non-career functions and employees is a perennial challenge for every administration. The new President and his team must insist on clear accountability and maintain policies that reinforce this basic distinction. The failure to understand or appreciate the distinct functions of the political appointees and the career civil service has been a recurrent source of embarrassment for executive branch officials in both Republican and Democratic administrations. The abuse of the career civil service for partisan political purposes and the bureaucratic usurpation of sensitive policymaking, which should be the sole responsibility of political appointees, are threats to both good government and sound management. They should never be tolerated.


The new President and his team can achieve significant success in advancing his substantive agenda in the early stages of his term by taking advantage of the President's broad powers of appointment to quickly secure competent personnel committed to his agenda and ensure that his political appointees operate as a team. He must make sure that his appointees understand their management responsibilities as well as opportunities for improving employee performance under the Civil Service Reform Act. He must insist that they maintain a sharp line between career and non-career staff and functions, and provide clear leadership for the civil service, demonstrating respect for their professionalism and responsibilities in the execution of government policy.

Personnel is policy. The success of the new President is dependent not only on articulating his vision for America and his commitment to policies that will realize that vision, but also on appointing people to his management and policy team--from the Cabinet-level Secretary to the confidential assistant in an agency office--who share that vision and are willing to work tirelessly to make it a reality. The American people will be the direct beneficiaries of that kind of sound presidential personnel management. Delivering on campaign promises by transforming ideas into effective policy is the essence of good government in a free society.

Robert E. Moffit, Ph.D., is Director of Domestic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.


1. Seth Harris, "A Short Transition (Thank Goodness)," The Washington Post, December 20, 2000, p. A35.

2. Ibid.

3. The "Plum Book" lists approximately 6,700 senior level policy and management positions. But a very large number of these positions are, and will be, occupied by a career incumbents, not political appointees. For a detailed listing of these positions, their categories, their titles. and the names of the current incumbents, see Policy and Supporting Positions, Committee on Governmental Affairs, U.S. Senate, 106th Cong., 2nd Sess., November 8, 2000.

4. For a discussion of this congressional encroachment on President Clinton's authority, see Patrick Korten, " Why Congress Should Not Undermine the Presidential Power of Appointment," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1044, July 24, 1995.

5. Public Law 95-454; 5 U.S.C. 7104(e).

6. For a discussion of the amended Hatch Act clarifying the potential questions of federal employees, see the United States Office of Special Counsel (OSC) Web site at

7. Susan Schmidt, "Head of HCFA Is Forced to Quit for Hatch Act Violation," The Washington Post, December 16, 2000, p. A17.

8. For an account of the 1993 changes to the Hatch Act, see Robert E. Moffit, " Gutting the Hatch Act: Congress's Plan to Re-Politicize the Civil Service," Heritage Foundation Issue Bulletin No. 180, July 6, 1993.


Robert E. Moffit
Robert Moffit

Senior Research Fellow, Center for Health and Welfare Policy