- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 16, 2001

Better lock up your agenda, Mr. President-elect. The self-proclaimed advocates of "good government" including analysts at the Brookings Institution and the Twentieth Century Fund are clamoring for a reduction in the number of political appointments the new president should make.

Traditionally, they have opposed what they consider an excessive number of political appointees for two reasons. For one, they say, it erects a glass ceiling within the bureaucracy that discourages the nation's best and brightest from going into or staying in the civil service. For another, appointees tend to be more mobile than career employees, so they seldom have time to learn one job well before they switch to another.

And now, the lengthy delay in learning the identity of our president-elect has given them a new argument. The postelection legal wrangling severely truncated the normal transition period, they point out. And since one of the most important tasks of any transition team is to determine who should get the plums appointive jobs in the executive branch many of these choice slots naturally will go unfilled for a longer period than usual.

So, the argument goes, rather than leave these positions unfilled while personnel officials for the new administration play catch-up, it is far better to rely on experienced career civil servants.

It may sound plausible, but there's a serious problem with this approach it would dangerously erode the president's ability to implement his agenda. To effectively pursue his policy goals, a president must be able to fill key policy positions with men and women who share his vision people in whom he places particular trust. Career civil servants, for all their skill and competence, can't realistically be asked to don a mantle of political responsibility. Since they must serve administrations of different parties and different ideologies from one term to the next, they can't speak or act on behalf of a partisan agenda without losing their credibility. Indeed, to force them to do so is unfair.

Having the right number of political appointees is crucial to every president's success. He can't fulfill his mandate alone or with only a handful of staffers in the West Wing. Nor can his Cabinet implement his policies without a cadre of like-minded, personally committed appointees within the agencies. This is especially true in today's political climate with a narrowly divided Congress providing a perfect excuse for those who want merely to perpetuate the status quo.

In government, as in business, "people are policy." Only when the right people hold key positions can the sluggish behemoth of bureaucracy be prodded in new hopefully more productive directions and activities. Regardless of their political or philosophical orientation, "the right people" are those who have not only management competence, but also a personal commitment to the president and his program and the kind of personal toughness and resolve essential to lead a bulky, balking bureaucracy.

This is not to devalue the undisputed contributions of career public servants. Career employees provide continuity, administrative expertise and institutional memory that can help a new administration avoid repeating old mistakes. But the president needs both appointees and career civil servants to move forward wisely and effectively.

No one is calling for a return to a Jacksonian spoils system in which all jobs go to political associates. But it would be unwise to trim the already thin ranks of appointees even further. Today, there are 1.7 million federal employees in the executive branch. Quite a few positions said to be subject to presidential appointment are now occupied, and will be occupied, by career civil servants. The real number of political appointees is tiny by comparison, about 1,200 executive level and senior management positions and another 1,500 support staff a mere drop in the ocean of career bureaucrats.

To switch even more appointive posts to civil service positions would only solidify the grip of Washington's "permanent government" on the operation of the executive branch. It also would frustrate change and innovation, and enhance the power of the federal bureaucracy. Which is why the president-elect should ignore this misguided advice and bring on the political appointees.

Robert Moffit is director of domestic policy studies at The Heritage Foundation.


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