Clinton Turning Attention to Task of Picking Team

By Julie A. Miller — November 18, 1992 6 min read

“If your boss is influential, your office is influential,’' he said. “Career people need a political leader out in front of them.’'

When Bill Clinton moves into the Oval Office in January, thousands of new federal officials will begin making parallel moves into offices all over Washington. Filling those positions--or at least those in the highest tiers--is the job that will most command the attention of Mr. Clinton and his advisers during the transition period.

“It is clearly the number-one priority,’' said Lorelei Kinder, who headed President Reagan’s transition team on education. “You can have all the policies in the world, but what counts is the ability to execute.’'

Mr. Clinton will probably begin announcing his first appointments--those of Cabinet officers--within the next few weeks. But the work of staffing a new administration is a long, multilevel process that is likely to stretch into the spring.

In his first post-election news conference, Mr. Clinton said last week that he had begun considering candidates for Cabinet posts, and that he would be “deeply involved’’ in the selection process.

He also indicated that it would be a deliberate process. He would not, he said, repeat the mistakes of administrations that “have been in a rush to fill Cabinet positions before they decided what they wanted these departments to do, whether they would pursue a different mission than they had in the past, and decided how these departments would fit with one another.’'

Nonetheless, observers expect Mr. Clinton to name his Cabinet well before the end of the year, as most recent Presidents have done. Richard M. Nixon, for example, presented his entire slate on Dec. 11, 1968.

The last two-party transition took somewhat longer.

Ronald Reagan named most of his Cabinet between Dec. 11 and 23, 1980, but the announcement of his last appointment--that of Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell--did not come until Jan. 7. Part of the reason for the delay, however, stemmed from the fact that Mr. Reagan had vowed to dismantle the agency, and, as it turned out, several candidates declined to accept the job.

‘Give and Take’

How much control the President and his inner circle wield over the selection of subcabinet posts varies, depending, those familiar with the process say, on a President’s philosophy, the level of concern about a particular job, and the clout of a particular Secretary.

“We gave Cabinet officers too much latitude in selecting their key appointees, which resulted in a government staffed by people who did not share or understand our different dream,’' Hamilton Jordan, Jimmy Carter’s chief of staff, wrote in an article that appeared last week in The Washington Post.

In contrast, Mr. Bell and conservative White House aides were locked in a stalemate for months, as the Secretary vetoed their nominations--some recommended by Ms. Kinder’s team before he came on board--and they rejected his. In the end, they compromised.

“It’s a negotiation, a give-and-take situation,’' Mr. Bell said in an interview last week.

“The process was much the same’’ in the Nixon and Ford administrations, in which he served as Commissioner of Education, Mr. Bell said, “but there wasn’t quite the concentration on political ideology.’'

Observers say the White House generally takes a direct interest only in the top tier of subcabinet posts, for which the President nominates candidates and which then must be confirmed by the Senate.

The Education Department has 17 such positions. The most visible have tended to be the deputy secretary and the assistant secretary for educational research and improvement.

The deputy secretary is the agency’s number-two official and responsible for much of the day-to-day operation of the department. The research chief manages the agency’s most discretionary and controversial programs, and is usually a member of the secretary’s inner circle, as is the assistant secretary for policy and planning.

Several assistant secretaries manage specific programs. For example, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education oversees the general precollegiate grant programs, including the $6 billion Chapter 1 program.

‘Hot Spots’

The Council for Excellence in Government, an organization of veteran federal managers, published an article in the November issue of Government Executive magazine identifying seven domestic-policy areas likely to be “hot spots” in the coming years, and 50 subcabinet posts that will play key roles.

One of the subjects is “education and family,’' and the council named the assistant secretaries for research and elementary and secondary education as important positions.

It also identified as key posts the Agriculture Department official who manages child-nutrition programs and the director of the Administration for Children and Families in the Health and Human Services Department, who oversees Head Start.

The assistant secretaries for postsecondary and vocational education were listed as important officials in the areas of workforce improvement and economic competitiveness, where the council predicted that agencies will have to work together.

“We were looking for the leverage points that really had potential to have a substantial impact,’' Mark Abramson, the council’s president, said in an interview.

The Third Tier

Reporting to the Presidential appointees is another layer of managers, some of whom are highly visible.

For example, the director of the office of special-education programs oversees $3 billion in educational programs for disabled children, and is an important presence in the field.

Some of these positions are reserved for career civil servants, while others are designated “general’’ positions that can be filled either with a career or a political appointee.

The Education Department has about 70 “general’’ positions, of which fewer than a third are currently filled by political appointment.

For example, Judith A. Schrag, the director of the special-education office, is a political appointee, while the five individuals who manage program areas in elementary and secondary education are career employees.

When a new party takes control of the executive branch, it is rare for any political appointees to be retained. Career managers are protected by civil-service laws, however, and can only be transferred to comparable positions. Therefore, many are likely to stay put.

In addition, no more than 10 percent of the general positions governmentwide can be filled with political appointees.

Studies have shown that the Education Department has more political appointees in proportion to its entire workforce than is average governmentwide--probably, observers note, because other agencies have missions requiring more technical expertise.

When a management position is filled by political appointment, the Secretary and the relevant assistant secretary both have input into the choice, and the White House’s interest is usually less direct than with Presidential appointments.

“You have a lot of latitude and a lot of discretion there,” Mr. Bell said. “But there are still a lot of hungry people who worked on the campaign. There are people who are designated as ‘must hires.’”

The ‘Frosting on the Cake’

The final group of jobs that will turn over are those of aides to policymaking officials. These slots are not permanent, and the federal government’s Office of Personnel Management approves the hiring of each such person. The Education Department currently has about 120.

But most federal employees are career civil servants.

“You’re really just moving the frosting on top of the cake,’' Ms. Kinder explained.

Chester E. Finn Jr., a former Education Department research chief, wrote in a 1989 Education Week commentary of the “Gang of 237,’' a cabal of bureaucrats that can derail almost any policy initiative.

“Those who cannot flat-out veto it can so distort it as to make it unrecognizable and so delay it as to make it pointless,’' he wrote.

But Mr. Abramson of the Council for Excellence in Government contended that leadership “can make an enormous amount of difference.’'

“If your boss is influential, your office is influential,” he said. “Career people need a political leader out in front of them.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 18, 1992 edition of Education Week as Clinton Turning Attention to Task of Picking Team