Trump slow to appoint key scientific posts across government

Amid the constant stream of scandals and tweets coming out of the White House, President Trump continues to fill senior positions throughout the government. On June 6, Trump’s two nominees to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Annie Caputo and David Wright, as well as his pick for DHHS Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, Stephen T. Parente, were received in the Senate. Including these three nominations, Trump has now formally announced just 7 of 46 key science and technology (S&T) leadership positions.

Trump has maintained that he’s not behind on agency appointments and continues to place blame for delays on the Senate Democrats. At the same time, he’s stated that he doesn’t plan to fill many positions “because they’re unnecessary,” although it remains unclear which positions will receive priority. Four months into his presidency, he clearly lags behind the last four presidents in total nominations — just 35 total confirmed, in contrast to Obama’s 130, G.W. Bush’s 60, Clinton’s 101, and G.H.W. Bush’s 94.

However, Trump’s complaints about the length of the Senate approval, or PAS (“Presidential Appointee needing Senate confirmation”), process are valid in one respect; Trump’s nominees so far have taken an average of 41 days to be confirmed, nine days longer than Obama’s at the same date. Indeed, the length of the PAS process has increased significantly over the last four administrations, regardless of which party controls the Senate. During President Obama’s first year, the Senate took an average of 61 days to confirm PAS nominees, up from 58 days during G.W. Bush’s first year, 49 in Clinton’s, and 52 in G.H.W. Bush’s. The average length for confirmation continued to increase throughout the Obama’s tenure, especially for positions in the executive branch — by 2011–12 it took an average of 151 days for executive department nominees to be confirmed. This trend arguably peaked during the last Congressional session, where the Senate confirmed the fewest civilian presidential nominees of any Congress in the past 30 years.

Positions related to S&T have not been exempt from this trend. Most notably, there were extensive delays to PAS appointments at the Department of Energy, which underwent major organizational changes to senior leadership positions early in the Obama administration (Figures 1 & 2).

Individual data points for key S&T-related PAS confirmed positions within the Executive Office of the President (EOP), and selected Cabinet departments and independent agencies, or 15 total analyzed, based on 2008 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report.
Calculated averages for key S&T-related PAS confirmed positions within within the Executive Office of the President (EOP) and selected Cabinet departments and independent agencies, of 15 total analyzed, based on 2008 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report. The “Total” column includes all departments and agencies listed in the report, but averages are shown for those with 3 or more distinct S&T-related positions.

Looking at all PS S&T-related positions in the last four administrations, President Obama was comparatively quick to fill top posts early in his administration, but experienced much longer confirmation times on average than any of the four previous presidents (Table 1).

Calculated averages for key S&T-related PAS confirmed positions within Executive Office of the President (EOP) and 15 science related Cabinet departments and independent agencies, based on 2008 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report. “Average Time from Inauguration” does not include positions that have fixed or renewable term limits.

This reflects his early focus on science and innovation policy, as laid out in his 2009 inauguration speech to “restore science to its rightful place.” However, this pattern was not uniform across all agencies — Obama lagged behind his predecessors in percentage of total PAS nominations, although he had substantially more positions to fill.

June 6 also marks the anniversary of President G.H.W. Bush’s science advisor’s, D. Allan Bromley, nomination to the Senate as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). The OSTP statute allows for up to four PAS confirmed Associate Directors (ADs), and the appointment of these officials is often an indicator to the scientific community that science has a role in early policymaking from inside the White House.

The G.W.H. Bush and Clinton administrations were comparatively fast in filling all five positions (Figure 3). The G.W. Bush administration chose to only fill two AD positions, one for “Science” and one for “Technology.” The Obama administration was notably quick to staff OSTP, including the nomination of its director John Holdren on inauguration day, but failed to nominate two ADs until after an entire year had passed. Additionally, several of the AD positions remained vacant for long stretches of time during his administration.

The Trump administration has released very little public information about OSTP’s staff, early activities, or role in broader policy discussions — so far the administration has made just one, non-PAS appointment to the office. The lack of senior officials at OSTP is reminiscent of G.W. Bush’s historically late nomination of his science advisor, John H. Marburger, eight months into his administration. Such delays can have deleterious effects on agency management — policies are set without relevant information and implementation is challenging without clear leadership inside the agencies. Additionally, high-level vacancies have often been the basis of criticisms from both parties about executive accountability and the use of non-PAS presidential appointees, or “czars”, to drive their policy agendas.

While President Trump’s inaction is not without some precedent, early policy decisions — the FY2018 budget request to Congress, the abandonment of the Paris Agreement, and the administration’s appeal of the travel ban in the Supreme Court — suggest some top posts may remain unfilled indefinitely.

The @stpolicy blog is a product of Baker Institute’s Science and Technology Policy Program — specifically Dr. Kenneth Evans and Dr. Kirstin Matthews. Find more research and publications at www.science.bakerinstitute.org.