How to kill a lame duck: Start with presidential appointees

US President Barack Obama speaks at the American Legion's 96th National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, August 26, 2014. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
SAUL LOEB AFP/Getty Images

Last Friday, Fortune reported that Todd Park, the White House’s top technology official, was leaving the administration. Park’s exit was reported a few days after news broke that Nicole Wong, the administration’s deputy chief technology officer, was leaving too. And in one of the biggest White House departures so far, press secretary Jay Carney vacated his post in June.

The high-profile exits signal that the traditional exodus of officials late in a presidential administration’s second term is already well underway.

But it’s really a chicken—ahem, duck—and egg problem. Are the big name departures the result of Obama’s lame duck period or the cause of it?

That’s right. It’s lame duck season again. And the consequences of late-term presidential paralysis are real and about as pathetic as a fowl with a limp.

A Washington Post op-ed by economist and former U.S. Treasury Secretary Larry Summers earlier this month pointed to George W. Bush’s failed social security reform and Hurricane Katrina debacle, Bill Clinton’s impeachment proceedings, Ronald Reagan’s Iran Contra Scandal, and Richard Nixon’s shameful resignation as lowlights brought to you by a presidential administration facing its final days in office.

Summers argued that the United States’ two-term system fosters such disastrous fumbles. And there’s no doubt that the United States’ presidential term limits and fixed election cycle creates the lame duck phenomenon. The term “lame duck” refers to the few months between an incumbent’s defeat in an election or expiration of second term and the start of his successor’s tenure. But in recent years, “campaign creep,” which prompts presidential hopefuls to start running for office nearly two years in advance, has “enhance[d] the sense that we have lame duck administrations,” says Roger Porter, a government and business professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government who served in the Ford, Reagan, and first Bush administrations.

But another factor perpetuates the lame duck problem: America’s huge number of presidential appointment positions, which are filled and then emptied in four or eight-year cycles based on political preference, regardless of which political party has control of the White House.

When an administration enters the second half of its second term, the revolving door starts spinning, as officials handpicked by the president head for the private sector. The exodus of high-level appointees and the efforts required to replace them jams the wheels of leadership and legislation.

Two trademarks of American politics—term limits and winner-take-all elections—handicap the full power of the second-term president. How do we address this stagnation?

Some of the United States’ peer nations avoid the lame duck issue entirely. The United Kingdom, for example doesn’t have lame duck leaders for one primary reason: its prime minister is not subject to term limits; there’s never an obvious date years in advance when an official and a particular political party is going to lose power, says Brian Taylor, the director for the Center for European Studies at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University.

It seems that most presidential systems of government are predisposed to lame duckery, especially those in which the president depends on congressional or party support to get an agenda through congress, according to Michael Coppedge, political science professor at the University of Notre Dame and author of Strong Parities and Lame Ducks, which examined Venezuela’s struggle with this phenomenon.

Certainly, no one is suggesting that the U.S. abandon its system of governance. Even a reconsideration of America’s constitutional limit of two presidential terms—while often the subject of debate, mostly recently by Summers—is unlikely.

But there’s some hope in reforming the presidential appointment process. The number of Senate-confirmed presidential appointees now stands at an estimated 1,100, according to figures published in the 2012 Plum Book and analysis by David Lewis, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. That’s an increase from 780 in 1960. The surge in such positions has come from natural growth—like when cabinet departments are created—and politically motivated efforts to gain more control of the government.

The federal government grew tremendously from the 1960s to 1980s in general, on the heels of President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, the creation of more social services initiatives, and the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency, which was born under President Richard Nixon. Another 3,000 to 4,000 appointees work in the administration in key roles that don’t require Senate approval, depending upon how White House staff is counted, according to Lewis, and that figure doesn’t even include advisory boards and commissions.

Senate-confirmed appointments suffer the most during lame duck periods. The Senate confirmation process is time-consuming and personally taxing on the individual nominees. It’s tough to fill theses positions at the beginning of an administration and even more so following a mass exodus of such officials near an administration’s end. “It puts agencies in holding patters until the next election. They don’t want to take on new initiatives if they can’t say for sure that they’ll see it through,” Lewis says.

Congress seemed to wise up to this fact in 2011 when it eliminated the Senate confirmation requirement for 170 presidential appointed positions. “They seemed to recognized that they just weren’t getting things done,” Lewis says.

Even though Congress managed a reduction three years ago, cutting Senate-confirmed positions—while often a topic of discussion in Washington—is a tough task because the chamber is hesitant to relinquish its power. But from Lewis’ perspective, it’s time for more cuts. “We have a ton of politically appointed positions relative to other democracies,” he says. “It’s a management problem. Imagine if every four or eight years a Fortune 500 company turned over all its executives. How would that affect their performance in the market?”

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