President-elect Joe Biden is choosing his cabinet, prioritizing government experience and diversity. President Trump instead appointed corporate executives and left many positions unfilled. But maybe the differences are not as stark as they first appear. Christina Kinane finds that presidents can manage vacancies and use interim appointments to guide agencies toward more or less policymaking. Trump did stand out, but Biden will likely use similar tools. And his appointments might not be immune from corporate influence. Timothy Gill finds that cabinet secretaries still mostly come from the corporate elite and return to the corporate sector afterwards. Even Democratic presidents are often drawing from a similar pool of elites. Both say Biden will bring change, but also see stable structural factors guiding his appointments.
Guests: Christina Kinane, Yale University; Timothy Gill, University of Tennessee
Studies: Vacancy Politics; “The Persistence of the Power Elite”
Matt Grossmann: How presidential appointments reveal policy goals and elite interests, this week on the Science of Politics. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann.
President-elect Joe Biden is filling out his cabinet, selecting many nominees from the Obama administration and prizing experience and diversity. That is quite a contrast with President Trump, who left many positions unfilled and often appointed corporate leaders, but maybe the differences are not as stark as they first appear. This week, I talked to Christina Kinane of Yale University about her book in progress, Vacancy Politics. She finds that presidents can manage vacancies and use interim appointments to avoid Senate troubles and guide agencies toward more or less policymaking. She says Trump did stand out, but Biden will likely need to use similar tools. I also spoke with Tim Gill of the University of Tennessee about his article, the Persistence of the Power Elite. He finds that cabinet secretaries still mostly come from the corporate elite and return to it afterwards. Even Democratic presidents are often drawing from a similar pool of elites and Biden may not be so different. Kinane says there’s a lot of appointments on the president’s plate.
Christina Kinane: The president is tasked with filling 1,200 Senate confirmable positions throughout his term or her term. And many of these positions serve on independence commissions that have a specific limited tenures of either five or seven years. And so those will come vacant at some point during the four years that a president serves, but they do not necessarily come vacant at the beginning of the administration. Now, all of the presidential appointments that requires Senate confirmation that are in the 15 executive departments. These are Departments of Agriculture, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development and the like. Each of those 15 executive departments have anywhere from 12 to hundreds of these positions, they cover US ambassadors, they cover US attorneys, US Marshals, and they cover cabinet secretaries, undersecretaries, assistant secretaries. So the ones that are within the executive departments, those ones, typically, new administrations will request the resignations of the previous administration’s appointees.
So while they might not all come vacant directly on Inauguration Day, most of them will become vacant in the months following. And so that is about when we take out the US attorneys and when we take out the ambassadors and the Marshals, which is pretty standard for these kinds of analysis, it’s about three to 400 positions that the president needs to fill in these Senate confirmable positions with many, many hundreds in Department of Defense to just a few in departments like education, not a few, but much less than hundreds in Departments of Education or health and human services.
Matt Grossmann: Gill looks at the cabinet nominees finding high corporate ties then and now.
Timothy Gill: The main takeaways from this paper, looking at the connection between corporate elites and presidential cabinets over the past 50 years is indeed that most individuals are eventually connected with corporations at their upper levels either before or after they’re tapped to be in a presidential cabinet. It is the case that more individuals go to the elite corporate sphere, as we talk about in the paper, becoming a member of a director on a board or a vice-president of a corporation or a CEO, more individuals go into that elite corporate sphere after their inner presidential cabinet, but still over 50% of individuals come from this sphere as well. So they might’ve been on the Board of Walmarts or on the board of some sort of defense contractor, but over 70% of individuals actually go to this sphere after they’re in a presidential cabinet. There are some positions that are more interlock than others. I don’t think that was all that surprising. So individuals that are tapped to be the Secretary of the Treasury or the Secretary of Commerce, many individuals come from a corporate sphere.
But what I think is perhaps quite interesting about positions and their relationship with elite corporate sphere is that there are some positions where individuals, where there’s a very high likelihood that they’re going to go into the elite corporate sphere after they’re in office, including Secretaries of State, Secretaries of Energy, Secretaries of Defense, this is actually higher than Secretaries of Commerce and Treasury.
Matt Grossmann: He draws on a long tradition of the sociology of elites.
Timothy Gill: C. Wright Mills, though was situated, he was at Columbia University and he was really the first mainstreamish sociologist that began to criticize the state of affairs in the US and political power in the US and US foreign policy abroad. And he had this idea that there were elites in the country that it wasn’t the case that anyone could serve in power or anyone could become a corporate elite, but that you had to have a particular background and that there was this revolving door between corporations and politics, and also the military, something that we don’t really look at in this paper, but I think that you do see as well. And thereafter, C. Wright Mills actually became a bit marginalized from the discipline, but he had an influence on later sociology. So we have awards in sociology in his honor and people learn about him in intro to sociology. And he set in place research program, looking at elites and their connection, different boards between one another, corporate boards and also the relationship between corporations and politics.
And so there was a study in the 1970s by a guy, Peter Freitag, and he looked at the same issue, looked at it from the late 1800s till the 1970s, whether or not you find a relationship between corporations and presidential cabinets between the elite corporate sphere and the elite political sphere. And he found, many of his findings were the same in line with my own findings. So I was teaching this paper in my political sociology courses, and I was always updating it on the fly with information from the Obama cabinets, but there was never anything systematic look to see if there was anything and there wasn’t. So I thought I could put this together, just some simple tables and statistics, and I think folks have found it pretty interesting.
Matt Grossmann: Kinane looks at appointments from the perspective of the president, where are the high capacity positions and do they want to expand or contract those agencies?
Christina Kinane: The idea is that a position can have jurisdiction or responsibilities for policy making activities. Some positions have considerable numbers of those jurisdictions and responsibilities, Cabinet Secretaries, General Councils, many Assistant Secretaries, are guiding bureaus and sub agencies within these large departments or guiding the large departments themselves in the actions that they’re taking to implement in force, adjudicate, regulate and engage in the work of governing. But then there are some positions that aren’t so high capacity in this policymaking world, they are focused on say public affairs, they’re focused on communication, or they’re focused on research that doesn’t actually offer policy recommendations. They might also be internally focused, which of course, I will grant you that the internal workings of each of these departments is important, and ultimately, contributes to policymaking actions. However, they themselves are not writing new regulations or engaging in enforcement activity.
And so the conceptual innovation that you’re speaking to is this idea of combining both the capacity of the position itself to engage and change how agencies are making policy or what actions they’re taking, and then also what the president’s priorities are for that agency. If the president is looking to have that agency increase its actions, increase its policymaking activity, or to decrease it, to contract it, or if the president is simply looking to have it maintain the status quo, just hold at what it is, a more neutral, what I term neutral priority, not looking to increase what the agency’s doing, but rather just continue with what the status quo is. And so the combination of these two is what creates this conception of position value and that each position has the capacity to impact the actions of the agency and that the president is prioritizing changing the actions of those agencies, changing, expanding, or contracting what that agency is doing.
And so it’s not enough just to think about the policy outcome that the president wants that the president would like to see, or is prioritizing decreasing pollution in the air and water or increasing our public transportation systems across the national stage, but rather looking at how agencies are doing that, what actions they are engaging in in order to do that. And that presidents are going to be prioritizing seeing those agencies do more in order to achieve those policy outcomes, they need to engage in more policy outputs. They need to engage in more policymaking activities or in less or to do less.
Matt Grossmann: She is studying when presidents leave positions open or avoid confirmation.
Christina Kinane: Ultimately, my book examines how and why presidents choose to not use permanent Senate-confirmed appointees. Permanent, of course, is a relative term because all administrations themselves are not permanent. So, typically, when we use the term permanent, we mean that they are Senate-confirmed and presidents are choosing these individuals to lead their administrations. And what the book looks to is to explain, under what circumstances they might choose to not use Senate-confirmed appointees. And really to understand where this comes from, I need to give a bit of background.
And so who the president appoints to top leadership positions in the executive branch, particularly what we would call the bureaucracy matters considerably, it matters for the management of the federal government and its efforts to take action and make policies aimed at solving complex problems that impact the lives of nearly all Americans. So managing the federal government as an institution is where these top leadership positions come into play, but that they also matter for Congress, because Members of Congress, Congress as an institution, relies on the bureaucracy to implement and enforce the legislation that they successfully pass into law, particularly because Congress can’t just snap its fingers and see whatever it passes through both houses implemented immediately.
And so, it matters to have the executive branch manage, but for the president, it matters, since the president, he or she is the chief of the executive branch, it matters that it’s managed by individuals that he or she chooses. And so the president can campaign, can make Rose Garden announcements, can rather pontificate during their State of Unions about what their administrations are going to do and how they’re going to do it. And they can do that until they’re blue in the face. But really who manages their administrations is where the rubber meets the road. And in that vein, president’s power to fill these very top-level positions, there Cabinet Secretaries, Assistant Secretaries, General Councils, Commissioners, Administrators. These are the positions whose authority requires Senate confirmation, who have been designated by Congress to require a Senate confirmation. These positions are the president’s most direct route to achieve their coveted policy agenda.
And so we, political scientists, political observers alike, have largely assumed that presidents would look to fill those vacancies promptly by submitting a nominee for Senate confirmation, and that hopefully, that nominee would satisfy, or at least not anger enough senators to elicit their consent to the appointment. And so we’ve largely been preoccupied with whom the nominee is, their likelihood of confirmation. And in doing so, we’ve ignored the alternative routes that presidents can take.
And specifically, we’ve considered the absence of a Senate-confirmed appointee, which have, in news headlines, in political science research, have been called vacancies. We’ve relegated them to be aberrations or asterisks. And so we’re surprised when we find departments and agencies operating without a confirmed appointee at the home. And critically, these vacancies do not remain unfilled, interim appointees are strikingly common. Between 1996 and 2016, for example, nearly 40% of the vacant Senate-confirmable positions that were reported to the Government Accountability Office went without subsequent nominations. And 60% of those vacant positions were filled temporarily by interim appointees.
And so in the past few years, the Trump administration has persistently left nearly a third of these positions without Senate-confirmed appointees, despite a Republican Senate majority that would seem eager to confirm his choices. And most of the headlines might lead us to believe that this is a new phenomenon, that this is surprisingly unique to the Trump administration, when in reality it’s not. And certainly, Trump, the president has made his disdain for the Senate confirmation process publicly known, his affinity for acting appointees have covered front page news. And so we would think that this is a new trend, but deliberate vacancies in agency leadership are really nothing new and neither are internal appointees. These actions that fill positions temporarily or in the Trump administration more permanently, they feel over half a vacant position since the Carter administration.
Matt Grossmann: Kinane offers a new view of why presidents choose to make nominees and choose not to.
Christina Kinane: The book project looks to answer questions that we haven’t even asked, specifically, how do presidents use vacancies? And why do presidents seek the Senate’s advice and consent for certain positions and not others? And why do presidents choose to leave certain vacant positions empty while filling others with interim appointees? And so I, to answer this question, I developed a new theory of appointments that explicitly accounts for these unilateral choices to leave positions empty, or to appoint an interim. And in doing so, corrects the status quo that senators face when they are choosing to confirm a nominee should one be submitted. And really what the book, the front half of the book is doing, is setting up this new framework to incorporate the Senate’s leverage to veto nomination and the president’s power to choose not to submit one in the first place.
And really the only way to do that is to rely on a conceptual innovation that I also introduced that, since there is no nominee to examine when presidents choose to maintain empty positions, I needed to develop a new measure of the capacity of the positions themselves, to advance priorities, to either expand or contract the policymaking activities of an agency, and I call this their position value. And this position value is independent of a particular nominee or of an appointee. And it, in this framework, determines whether and when rational presidents are strategically going to forgo nominations and appointments and shift our focus away from ideologically lined nominees or nominees who are loyal or competent, or you drawn from a certain set of individuals, and rather to focus on the position, how the position can shift the agency’s policy output in a way that the president prioritizes.
And so from this theory, I derive a series of expectations that I test and evaluate with two original data sets. The first comes from data I collected as a part of my dissertation work, which at the time was the most comprehensive data set on vacancies and appointments in political science. I developed it using several sources, but predominantly archived annual additions of the Government Manual, which lists who’s filling these positions that require Senate confirmation in each of the 15 executive departments, departments like Agriculture, State, Treasury, et cetera, if they are serving in an acting capacity or if the position is not empty. And the dataset covers fully the administrations from Carter to Obama.
And using this data, the biggest finding reveals that these expectations that my theory sets out, there is some meat in them, particularly my theory sets out that, when presidents prioritize contracting the reach of an agency, that is decreasing the agency’s policy output, decreasing the action the agency is engaging in, the vacant positions are more likely to be left empty, compared to when a president prioritizes expanding the reach of an agency, seeing the agency engage in more policymaking activities. And in those cases, the theoretical framework predicts that vacant positions are more likely to be filled with interim appointees. And these tests using this brand new data set show, and really the biggest finding reveals that, as anticipated, those vacant positions that have a high capacity of impacting policy output that are high capacity positions, that presidents who are looking to increase, looking to expand the policy output of that agency, are more likely to fill them with interim appointees and leave them empty.
Matt Grossmann: She says there’s more variation that just across parties.
Christina Kinane: There is this thought that Democrats always want to expand. And that’s not necessarily the case, particularly, because the way that I’m looking at this also to include a neutral category, meaning that they’re just looking to maintain the status quo rather than to increase actions. And so, in a lot of cases, we see those more neutral orientations that keep the department operating at the same level that it’s been operating in years past, we still see departments like the Department of Defense see expansion, both from Republicans and Democrats, the Department of Homeland Security, the same. Oftentimes, the Department of Veterans Affairs will shift around in how presidents are looking to see the actions of the VA, both Democrats and Republicans, to expand or contract. And so that’s actually one of the reasons why I’ve concentrated less on the ideological or partisan identifications of policy outcome priorities, but rather looking at how these presidents are submitting their budgets to fund agency activities. And so we see that that this varies considerably.
Matt Grossmann: Gill also finds that party differences may be overblown. Democrats also draw from elite corporate positions.
Timothy Gill: Between cabinets, I mean, you find that both Republicans and Democrats are heavily interlock, that is that they pull individuals from duly corporate sphere and to presidential cabinets, and that individuals that served in their administrations then went on to serve in the elite corporate sphere. We do find that Republicans are only slightly more interlock than Democrats. And this is what previous research that looked at the same sort of issue found as well, the Republicans are only just a bit more interlocked than their democratic counterparts. And we’re talking about, just in looking at the totality, whether or not Democrats, either came from the elite corporate sphere or went to the elite corporate sphere afterwards, we’re just looking at a 5% difference, 78% versus 83%. So there’s only a slight difference there.
Matt Grossmann: He defines these corporate roles broadly.
Timothy Gill: In Freitag’s work, the way that he looked at it was if somebody had a high ranking position at a corporation, so if they were a board member, if they were a vice president, if they were a CEO, if they had some sort of leadership position within a corporation. Many folks in his study came from places like Ford and banks and things like this. But then also had, many politicians are lawyers as well. And so he also quoted somebody as a corporate elite if they were a corporate lawyer. And there are these large corporate law firms that represent large corporations and all their sorts of battles and all the rest of it. So that’s basically how this was coded. Wasn’t an individuals some of that sat on, like Hillary Clinton, who was on the Board of Directors for Walmarts or somebody like Alexander Haig, who was in the Reagan administration, but then he went on, I think, to be on AOL, America Online’s Board of Directors, things like this, or if they were a lawyer who worked for a law, once again, a a corporate law firm.
And so what I did was I looked at obituaries many people have passed on, Bloomberg has a very nice database where you can look up individuals and see what their connections are with various corporations and this sort of a thing to code whether or not someone at some point, and many individuals they were out in multiple, served in many corporations, both before and after. They were people like Rumsfeld, et cetera, before and after they were in office.
Matt Grossmann: But all these ties might matter to nominees socialization. The Trump nominees offer good examples.
Timothy Gill: We could talk about divisions within the elite corporate sphere, are we talking about financial capital? Are we talking about folks coming from, whether it be the automobile industry or the pharmaceutical industry or energy like Rex Tillerson or something like this? So this analysis is very descriptive in this and it doesn’t get into finer detail, what sorts of corporations are individuals coming from? Nonetheless, they are coming from the upper echelons, the elite levels of corporations. And that, I think, tells us something, are these individuals, I mean, sociology, a large piece of sociology is the influence of socialization, where individuals are coming from, not that that’s determinative, but I think it is important question to entertain if you are someone that works in the elite corporate sphere your whole life, working for an ExxonMobil or working for, whether it was an American Online or a bank, whose interest do you have? How were you socialized? Where do you come from? Who are you thinking about when you make decisions?
Now, it is true that Trump, I mean, as far as the Trump administration, we’ll have to still wait and see, of course, where people go and all the rest of it, but he did in fact tap more people for his presidential cabinets that came from the elite corporate sphere than any administration in the past 50 years. So over 70% of individuals came from that sphere. In some ways, I don’t think that’s all that surprising. I mean, George W. Bush and Obama, as well, also had very high levels of individuals from the corporate sphere in their cabinets. To Trump, is a little bit higher, but in some respects, I mean, this is a guy who didn’t come from politics, he came from a real estate, all these sorts of endeavors with vodka and steak and all the rest of it. So who does he know? Who does he mingle with? Well, he probably knows many of these individuals from the corporate sphere.
Personally, I don’t know precisely what his relationship was with DeVos, and Tillerson and others beforehand, but the reality is that he does, he taps the CEO of ExxonMobil for Secretary of State, an individual who was really, his work is not in diplomacy really. I mean, of course, there was a case made that, oh, he deals with leaders from abroad in his work as somebody for ExxonMobil, but as far as civil service, that’s not there. So, I mean, I think that, we do see a little bit of a difference.
I wouldn’t call Trump necessarily an outlier, because over 60%, close to 60% of Obama’s appointees initially came from the elite corporate sphere. His are a little bit above 70%. So we do see a difference there, but not, I wouldn’t call it too far away from many other sorts of corporations. I mean, and over the last 50 years, individuals that are at one point or another either before or after their time in office coming from, or going to the elite corporate sphere, that’s above 70%, and so throughout all the administrations. Some are more higher than others, but I think you do see pretty high levels across the board.
Matt Grossmann: Kinane also finds that Trump stood out for leaving more positions open, but it was mostly an acceleration of prior trends.
Christina Kinane: Certainly the landscape of American politics has changed considerably since January 20th, 2017. And really, you point to Michael Lewis’s book at the beginning of the administration and really the Trump administration with generally unprecedented levels of certain things that we had witnessed prior, but again, amplifying what we had seen. So Trump was a president, that by his first August recess, had not submitted nominees for an unprecedented 60% of these top leadership positions. By comparison, President Obama, President George W. Bush and President Clinton had not submitted a 26%, 29% and 41% respectively. So, Obama 26, Bush 29 and Clinton 41, had not submitted that percentage of nominees by their first August recess. And data from the Government Accountability Office of these reported vacancies indicate that these past three administrations left anywhere from 10 to 70% of their vacancies each year, either empty or filled with an interim appointees, so not pursuing nominees.
So again, not engaging in the formal nomination process is not new, it’s just at a higher level, starts with the Trump administration. And then as the Trump administration continued on its way, although recent presidents have certainly used acting secretaries in their cabinets, going all the way back as the federal government has been in place, there have been acting secretaries in government, the Trump’s acting secretaries have served longer on average, and there have been more of them, a lot more of them. And really in the last two years, Trump has relied on interim appointees at a level that’s considerably higher than any of his predecessors to date.
Matt Grossmann: Trump wanted contraction in some places and expansion in others and acted accordingly.
Christina Kinane: There’s a few examples where Trump’s first, fiscal year 2018, his first budget that he submits, has a wide variety of cuts made to various departments, particularly, the Department of the Interior, his budget requested a decrease of 12% or almost $1.5 billion from the 2017 level of funding. And he left, for the first 18 months of his administration, left nearly half of the positions that interior empty. And so, not only is the president prioritizing a decrease in the activities that the agency is doing by decreasing that funding as I mentioned it, but also he left much of those positions empty. And in fact, the Department of the Interior was stymied in a lot of places to be able to engage in its policymaking activities. And similarly, at the Department of Labor, the president’s budget requested a 21% decrease. And there, he left for his first 18 months, 36% of his leadership positions empty.
And so, again, seeing that connection between decreasing the actions that the agency is doing and leaving those positions empty, which contrast pretty considerably or rather to continue that with the Department of Labor to giving even a more specific example. President Trump left the Assistant Secretary for Employment and Training empty for over 18 months at the start of his administration. And one of his key priorities was to decrease federal support for job training and employment services and shift that responsibility for funding those services to the states and localities and to employers. And so that match between leaving those positions empty and articulating those contraction priorities was pretty clear there. And that contrast pretty starkly with his priorities with the Department of Homeland Security, where he had considerably more interims.
We’ve seen in recent years the longest serving Acting Cabinet Secretary in Chad Wolf, leading the Department of Homeland Security. And there, for his first budget, he requested a 6.8% increase from the 2017 annualized level. And so that would increase funding for programs to strengthen what he allocated or what he emphasized for security for the borders and for integrity of the immigration system. And there, we saw interim appointees leading the immigration and customs services and really having his acting leadership expand the activities that DHS were doing throughout the Trump administration. So that was connection there as well.
Matt Grossmann: What about Biden? Biden is now focusing on expertise after Trump did not.
Christina Kinane: What the Trump administration has really highlighted is that having individuals who are not up to speed with how the government operates. And what their respective agencies and departments do is a detriment to policymaking activities, to responsiveness of governments, and particularly, because the Biden administration is now shifting focus. I think there’s an opportunity to really highlight that expertise and highlight that institutional knowledge and perhaps even allow the Biden administration to really hit the ground running, even if they’re doing so in an acting capacity, to really hit the ground running, given that they have those connections with the millions of career civil servants that are going to be on the ground doing the things that they are guiding their agencies to do. And so, having less of the Michael Lewis’ Fifth Risk kind of bumbling around the new administration. At least from the nominees that have been offered, it seems like the Biden administration is really taking the act of governing seriously.
Matt Grossmann: And even without confirmation, Biden nominees could serve a long time.
Christina Kinane: Obviously, the Senate has its constitutional prerogative of confirming a nominee. So traditionally, we would be answering this question, thinking about whether Biden’s nominees are ideologically positioned to achieve a speedy confirmation. And in a world where we have a Republican Senate that refuses to confirm nominees, the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, actually, allows for interims to serve for considerable amount of time.
So, interims that are filling vacancies at the start of an administration that occur right after inauguration, can serve upwards of 720 days, with the circumstance being that after 300 days, a nominee is submitted for Senate confirmation. And at that point, the time constraint is suspended. If the Senate does not move on that nominee, the time constraint is continuing to be suspended. And so what could happen, there’s two plausible scenarios, the Senate can reject the nominee outright or not move on it, obviously, confirmed. So should the Senate confirm, perhaps Biden gets the nominee that he chooses or can put in a permanent capacity, but if the Senate does not act, as it hasn’t been acting, on even Trump appointees, then Biden’s interims could serve for as long as the Senate does not act. And once the Senate does act, that clock restarts to 210 days until another nominee is submitted for a Senate confirmation.
And again, that nominee, should it not be acted on, suspends the time period until the Senate chooses to act. And so the Senate would need to reject outright the two rounds of nominees to shorten the length of time that an interim, Biden appointee, could serve to that 720 days, otherwise, it’s much longer. And so it could make it all the way until midterms with a full rack of interim leadership in the federal government, which I cannot imagine would be something that the Senate would be very excited to see. So the Senate then pushed to either outright reject or confirm the Biden nominees.
Matt Grossmann: Gill says many nominees, including Biden’s, may have corporate connections, even if that isn’t their primary role, but even these connections could still have influence.
Timothy Gill: Someone like Hillary Clinton is kind of a good example of this, she was on the Board of Directors for Walmart for a period of time. And there was some investigative journalists, looking into her role there and how she didn’t apparently stand up for the rights of workers and this sort of thing, but do we really think about Hillary Clinton? Is that her status? Is that her main role as a Board Director for Walmart? I’m not really, I don’t think that’s how people view her as more as someone as Senator and Secretary of State, and et cetera. Same thing with Alexander Haig in Reagan administration, who went to, I believe it was, he was on some boards in the entertainment industry, American Online, I want to say MGM, and this guy who came from the military sphere and then he’s in the Reagan administration. And then he goes and sits on these corporate boards.
Yeah, I mean, I think that there is something subjective there or questions about, oh, how does somebody identify? How do they see themselves? But I think there is an objective. I think there is some objective criteria there. I mean, why was Hillary Clinton on the board of Walmart? Why was Alexander Haig on the board of AOL? My guess is, they didn’t bring him in there to organize workers or to push for better compensation for workers on the floor, probably something else. It was probably something in their worldview that they are at least committed to corporate capitalism, that they’re committed to profit making above all else. I mean, that’s what the board’s up to, make some decisions, ensure that a corporation is profitable. And there are a number of ways to ensure that a corporation is profitable that is not helpful for workers, be it cutting jobs, whatever it might be, downsizing as euphemistically.
So, yeah, I think that it is important to recognize that somebody like Lloyd Austin, who spent a lot of time in the, over 40 years, in the military, but then he was working with some defense contractors, thinking through the complexity of individuals, I think that’s important, but I also think there’s an objective situation going on there, why is somebody, again, on a corporate board? Is it to, again, to assist workers or is it to assist the corporation in profit making?
I think that Lloyd Austin’s a perfect example of two, of what C. Wright Mills talked about. I mean, he was talking about the revolving door between military corporations and politics, and Lloyd Austin epitomizes that, he’s this top military individual, then he’s working with some defense contractors. And I think he was even on board for a health care provider. I mean, that’s fascinating, right? Why is that going on? And then now is being tapped for as Secretary of Defense, and there’s other individuals like this, Rumsfeld, Haig, so on and so forth. And so, yeah, I think C. Wright Mills’ thesis developed in 1950s remains relevant in the present period.
Matt Grossmann: The increasing political role of companies may also mean more interlocks to come.
Timothy Gill: It is true that more cabinet individuals go to the corporate sphere that come from there, but you still have over 50% of individuals that are coming from the corporate sphere. I think that that’s probably true, why would you want somebody that just served in office or who has mostly been in civil service their whole life sitting on a corporate board when they’re a former Secretary of the Interior, or Secretary of the State? I think it’s about social capital. It’s about connections. They’re going to know people in the Senate, they’re going to know people in Congress and they can probably get their lobbyists in contact with those individuals and whatever it is that they want in terms of legislation.
Timothy Gill: I mean, there’s a lot of work on lobbying, both in political science and in sociology that a lot of this has to do with, social capital and lobbyists getting to know individuals and then being in the same places as them. And then, Congress members there, who are they getting their information from if they’re constantly surrounded by particular lobbyists? Who are they getting their research from? So, I mean, I think both dynamics are at work here.
Matt Grossmann: Kinane is also now moving back to look at specific internal nominees and where they’re appointed.
Christina Kinane: The more comprehensive data that I’ve put together over the past year, I’ve been working with an excellent team of Yale undergraduate research assistants to construct a nearly continuous data set of who is filling all of these positions, if they’re left empty, where they come from, if they’re acting and for how long. And the biggest findings of that data will give a deeper understanding of president’s strategic evasion of Senate consent and how the Senate voluntarily relinquished that consent by not confirming a nominee when an unconfirmed interim appointee is filling that position. And the findings will be able to speak to the evolution of vacancies to how long positions are left empty before they’re filled, if at all, the evolution of interim appointee tenures, and more importantly, the policy and performance implications of these choices.
And so these data will capture when the interim appointee is a political appointee versus a career civil servant that’s been elevated temporarily to these top leadership positions. And that distinction adds even more depth to our understanding of when presidents choose to appoint interims, to appoint the people who will guide the massive ships that are these federal executive departments. These individuals are determining the actions of governments.
Matt Grossmann: She’s finding big differences between political and career interim appointments.
Christina Kinane: I spent this summer conducting dozens of interviews with previous acting officials, spanning administrations from Carter through the Trump administration, a variety of departments, a variety of different levels of authority. And one thing that came out very clearly from these conversations is that there is a considerable difference between interim appointees who are political appointees in their original position and then elevated to that acting position of the vacant position to that acting capacity and those that are career, GS-15, as civil servants top level, but career bureaucrats that are then elevated to fill those positions. And particularly what’s important is that it’s the career GS-15, it’s filling that position for a considerable amount of time. What ends up happening is that the rest of the administration and also other principal players on Capitol Hill and even within their own department start to associate them as political appointees.
And so, if it’s a short tenure of the interim being a career person elevated, we might expect that they bring a level of expertise and know how and how the agency is functioning, able to really grease the wheels as it were, and use their connections with the people that they’ve worked side by side with for their career versus a political appointee being sent in from the White House to fill that position might have a bit more trouble, but nonetheless, all of them have commented that they would act in the same way they would if they were confirmed or if they’re acting.
Matt Grossmann: Next up for her is studying how this changes policymaking.
Christina Kinane: So, really what my research agenda is looking to dive into over the next few years is to really get a sense of who is leading and who is not leading our government and what the implications of that are. So I have several projects that are getting off the ground and most of these require a considerable amount of data collection, because we haven’t been paying attention to positions being left empty or filled with interim appointees. And so looking at the implications for loss of quorum at independent commissions and how Congress is able to actually engage in oversight of these commissions when there aren’t people in those seats, when those seats are empty. And also looking at how, if those seats are filled by interims, how Congress is able to oversee and really bring to task those individuals and if they’re as responsive as confirmed appointees.
Matt Grossmann: Gill is now working on diversity in presidential cabinets and how that is connected to where they come from.
Timothy Gill: I’m seeing the discussion by the Biden cabinet is mostly a talk about diversity and the inclusion of women, the inclusion of racial and ethnic minorities. He just nominated Marcia Fudge, I saw yesterday, who’s from Cleveland where I’m originally from. So that was nice to see. And so I know there’s a lot of talk there about women and racial and ethnic minorities. So I’m actually working with a grad student, I’m working with two graduate students right now, I switched universities, when I was at UNCW, but I had a graduate student there who was, we were looking at the inclusion of women and racial and ethnic minorities in presidential cabinets and then putting together literature review, I’m looking at previous work.
And then I have a graduate student right now this month, over the break, who is going to look more, try to put together, get sort of some numbers going in terms of women and racial and ethnic minorities. And then thinking about where do they come from? Where do women, where do racial and ethnic minorities come from? Are they coming from an elite corporate background or not? And do we see, and many of the similar questions, do we see any sort of trends over time? Do we see any sort of relationship with particular positions, et cetera? So, I might have another, I’m hoping to have another small piece come out, looking at the kind of power elite and women and racial and ethnic minorities and class background, if you will.
Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The Science of Politics is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center. I’m your host, Matt Grossmann. Thanks to Christina Kinane and Tim Gill for joining me. Please check out The Persistence of the Power Elite and Vacancy Politics, and then listen in next time.
Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons