federalist #37, revisited

Senate-confirmed, agency appointees play a vital role in American government, but the proliferation of these positions also presents a problem peculiar to the American system: long-term vacancies, or periods without a confirmed appointee serving in the position. Prominent examples occasionally draw attention. I’ve certainly tried to draw attention to the plight of the endlessly vacant Director of ATF. Another prominent recent example: Conflict over the first director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which tied the new Bureau’s hands during its first vital year in business, and resulted in a presidential recess appointment, still facing court challenge.

I’ll have more to say, but a quick comment about research Patrick Roberts, Bill Resh (aka billthebureauphile), and I are doing examining vacant appointee positions in U.S. Federal government agencies. This project stems from a broader effort, including a small academic conference in Alexandria last May (2012). Our work aims to systematically describe and analyze the factors influencing appointee position vacancies. I’ll be presenting a draft of the analysis in a couple weeks at a talk at American University. In the spirit of self-promotion:

“Who Isn’t Running Government: Appointee Position Vacancies, 1989-2009”

Matthew Dull, Associate Professor of Public Administration & Policy, Virginia Tech

American University Department of Public Administration & Policy Seminar Series September 20th – 12:00-1:20pm

In a fortuitous turn, this semester I’m teaching a VT-CPAP grad seminar, “Public Administration Theory and Context,” which last night brought me back to Madison’s Federalist #37.  Here’s a passage that applies nicely to appointee politics:

Among the difficulties encountered by the convention, a very important one must have lain in combining the requisite stability and energy in government, with the inviolable attention due to liberty and to the republican form…Energy in government is essential to that security against external and internal danger, and to that prompt and salutary execution of the laws which enter into the very definition of good government. Stability in government is essential to national character and to the advantages annexed to it, as well as to that repose and confidence in the minds of the people, which are among the chief blessings of civil society….The genius of republican liberty seems to demand on one side, not only that all power should be derived from the people, but that those intrusted with it should be kept in independence on the people, by a short duration of their appointments; and that even during this short period the trust should be placed not in a few, but a number of hands. Stability, on the contrary, requires that the hands in which power is lodged should continue for a length of time the same. A frequent change of men will result from a frequent return of elections; and a frequent change of measures from a frequent change of men: whilst energy in government requires not only a certain duration of power, but the execution of it by a single hand.

There you have it: Appointee politics is defined by the tradeoffs between energy and stability energy and stability.

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About Matt Dull

I'm an associate professor with Virginia Tech's Center for Public Administration & Policy at our campus in Alexandria, VA. My research interests include public policy, administration, and American political institutions.

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