The missing element: examining the loyalty-competence nexus in presidential appointments.

Author:Ouyang, Yu

Drawing on principal-agent models of political control of the bureaucracy, scholars have posited that the appointment power is one of the president's most valuable tools for influencing the burgeoning administrative state. In these principal-agent models, the principals--or presidents--can overcome problems of information asymmetry and shirking by invoking costly monitoring techniques. Or presidents can place loyal agents--appointees--in key bureaucratic posts. Appointees who share and actively promote the president's political philosophy can both signal a president's political intent and advance presidential goals at the bureaucratic level. Appointees have the ability to alter agencies' organizational structures, transfer recalcitrant civil servants to less influential positions, and redirect the allocation of resources or effort within agencies.

Reflecting this emphasis of loyalty in contrast to competence, Moe (1985a) recommends that presidents should seek "responsive competence" rather "neutral competence" (Heclo 1975), while Moe (1982; 1985b) and Wood and Waterman (1994) find that the appointment of loyalists to a number of federal regulatory agencies altered agency outputs in the president's preferred policy direction. Other scholars, journalists, and political pundits also assume that the appointment of loyalists advances presidential policy and argue that presidents have consistently promoted loyalty over competence when making appointments (e.g., Baker 2014; Moynihan and Roberts 2010). And more generally, Aberbach and Rockman (2000) note that appointing loyalists to key administration positions is but one aspect in a broader trend toward the politicization of the bureaucracy involving a variety of other techniques promoting presidential influence (e.g., control of budgets, administrative reform; see also Waterman 1989; Durant 1992; Durant and Warber 2001). Yet despite all of this impressive work, there is a theoretically important missing element in these studies. Empirically speaking, what distinguishes a loyal appointee from a competent one? Or, to phrase the question differently, what distinct--and observable--characteristics comprise loyalty and competence? This is an important question for scholars, as some appointee background characteristics, particularly prior experience in Washington, have been cited as evidence of both loyalty and competence (see Nathan 1975; Hess 1976). It is also important for presidents and their personnel teams, as they seek to first evaluate and then select appointees from the hundreds of thousands of available applicants.

To address this missing element and better differentiate loyalty from competence, we analyze a unique data set of 3,366 resumes of individuals appointed by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama across 51 different federal institutions, including departments, commissions, and government corporations. The resumes describe the background characteristics of each appointee, from their education and training to their work and political experience. We also examine four types of appointments: presidentially appointed, Senate confirmed (PAS), the focus of most previous studies of presidential appointments, including the work of Krause and O'Connell (2011), (1) and three sets of appointments that do not require Senate confirmation (2) Schedule C (SC); (3) Senior Executive Service (SES), and (4) most Executive Office of the President appointments (PA, presidentially appointed but not requiring Senate confirmation). Our analysis of these generalizable and comprehensive data leads to more precise definitions of loyalty and competence.

Literature Review

A number of studies, many of them principal-agent models, conclude that presidents can successfully employ their appointment power to effectively control the bureaucracy (see Moe 1982; 1985a; 1985b; Stewart and Cromartie 1982; Menzel 1983; Wood 1990; Wood and Waterman 1991; 1993; 1994; Wood and Anderson 1993). Moe's work specifically posits that appointments are a vital technique for influencing bureaucratic outcomes and that presidents do so by valuing appointees demonstrating "responsive competence" over "neutral competence." Moe contends that appointees possessing "responsive competence" and placed into key administrative positions can implement policy change favorable to the president, while Heclo's (1975; 1977) recommendation for "neutral competence" merely prescribes that bureaucrats should be both policy neutral and expert in administrative management.

A second literature also examines the loyalty-competence nexus. These works examine whether presidents appoint individuals on the basis of loyalty or competence (Edwards 2001; Weko 1995; Moynihan and Roberts 2010). Presidential scholars describe how presidents "evaluate potential candidates on factors such as loyalty, competence, acceptability to key legislators and committees, demographic characteristics, political connections, and work for the campaign or party" (Lewis and Waterman 2013: 38; see also Mackenzie 1981; Pfiffner 1996; Weko 1995). Empirical studies emphasize the dimensions of loyalty and competence, or "compliance" contrasted with "expertise" (Krause and O'Connell 2011). Scholars also posit that presidents want to make patronage appointments as rewards for support or for coalition building with other key political principals (Hollibaugh, Horton, and Lewis 2014; Lewis and Waterman 2013; Mackenzie 1981; Patterson 2008; Patterson and Pfiffner 2001).

Other recent work explains how presidents could match certain appointee background characteristics with specific positions (Hollibaugh, Horton, and Lewis 2014; Krause and O'Connell 2011; Lewis and Waterman 2013; Lewis 2011) with specific agencies (Parsneau 2013). Most of this work (e.g., Krause and O'Connell 2011; Parsneau 2013) is confined to PAS appointees, for reasons of both prominence and limited data on lower-level appointees. But, as Lewis and Waterman (2013) argue, these seemingly insignificant and "invisible" appointees deserve more attention because they are of increasing importance for presidents pursuing political control of the bureaucracy. (2)

Along with this literature on appointee characteristics, many scholars focus on prescribing the characteristics that should be of most value to presidents. For example, Hess (1976) recommends that presidents should appoint individuals with prior federal governmental experience to the cabinet as a means of promoting competence over loyalty, while Nathan (1975) urges that presidents reward loyalty. Contrarily, Waterman (1989) warns that a reliance on loyalty alone can undermine presidential influence in the long run. The missing element in most of these studies--descriptive, empirical, or prescriptive--is that they do not operationalize their basic concepts, leaving unexplained which qualities constitute loyalty or competence.

To illustrate this point, while Hess (1976) recommends that prior Washington experience is an important characteristic related to competence, Nathan (1975) recommends that presidents are best served by promoting loyalists from within. Nathan (1975) then argues that prior Washington experience is a key testing ground for determining appointee loyalty. Consequently, prior Washington experience appears to cut both ways, offering presidents multiple cues regarding both the loyalty and competence of individuals. As this example illustrates, for us to better understand how loyalty translates into increased political control of the bureaucracy, we need to empirically identify the basic characteristics of both loyalty and competence.

To do so we examine a number of background characteristics of presidential appointees. Scholars long have collected data on the background characteristics of executive personnel (Herring 1936; Macmahon and Millett 1939; Stanley, Mann, and Doig 1967; Cohen 1988; Nixon 2004), while others have used personal interviews and surveys to measure appointee attributes (Aberbach and Rockman 1976; Aberbach, Putman, and Rockman 1981; Fisher 1987; Maranto 1993; Maranto and Hult 2004; Michaels 1997). (3) These studies theoretically suggest some possible characteristics that may be related to loyalty, such as past work in a presidential administration or for a political campaign. They also suggest that competence may be related to educational attainment and past task experience in a particular field. But with the exception of Krause and O'Connell (2011) and Lewis and Waterman (2013), there has been little systematic attempt to empirically identify the characteristics of loyalty and competence; and, though extensive, Krause and O'Connell's work (2011) focuses solely on PAS appointees and does not deal with SC, SES, and PA appointees. (4)

While PAS appointments--presidentially appointed and Senate confirmed--are most certainly important, recent research suggests that presidents use these other types of political appointments to control bureaucracies (see Lewis and Waterman 2013). As Light (1995) argues, an examination of SES and SC is warranted because presidents are more likely to use these types of appointments for political purposes, such as getting loyalists into specific agencies or rewarding party and campaign workers with patronage positions (Hollibaugh, Horton, and Lewis 2014). Lewis (2008, 97) notes, "Focusing on PAS positions also ignores the broader universe of appointed positions, which is where politicization usually occurs."

The broad scope of our research with a focus on four types of appointees is important because as David Lewis (2008, 22-24) notes, there were 1,137 PAS positions in the executive branch in 2004, with approximately 945 of these in policy-making positions. He also identifies 6,811 SES officials, with 674 of these presidential appointments. In all, he identifies 1,596 individuals with SC appointments. (5) Patterson (2008, 93-94) finds a similar distribution of appointments...

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