Why do we need to know?
“The public has an interest in knowing the political appointees serving and this information would facilitate congressional oversight and hold leaders accountable,” GAO said. “As of March 2019, no agency in the federal government is required to publicly report comprehensive and timely data on political appointees serving in the executive branch.”
GAO issued the report after members of Congress asked the agency how well political appointees are identified and agencies implement their ethics programs. Those questions point to problems on both those fronts in Trump’s administration. He has run through top level appointees at a dizzying pace and came into office doused by an ethical rain that has only grown heavier at the White House and in the agencies.
“Providing a simple list of who the President has appointed to senior positions in the government would make it easier to hold those officials accountable for policy decisions and compliance with ethics and transparency laws,” said House Oversight and Reform Chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), who requested the report along with Democratic Sens. Gary C. Peters (Mich.) and Thomas R. Carper (Del.).
A list would foster accountability by providing insight into “where the channels of political influence spreads,” said Don Kettl, a public affairs professor at the University of Texas and academic director of its Washington Center. “This isn’t to say that there shouldn’t be political influence on key policy decisions — that’s why we have elections. But we surely need to know where those channels flow.”
GAO urged Congress to consider legislation requiring administrations to publish the names of political appointees in the executive branch. To show what Trump thinks of that suggestion, his Executive Office of the President (EOP) ignored a GAO request for comment on its draft report.
“Only EOP did not respond in any way to our request for comments,” GAO told the Federal Insider.
That riled the members of Congress who requested the GAO examination.
“Strong ethics programs are necessary to ensure that we can trust our government. Americans have a right to know that public servants are acting in the people’s best interests and that their decisions are free from personal conflicts of interest,” said a statement from Peters, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “Unfortunately, the GAO’s report makes clear that multiple agencies have failed to live up to this basic standard — including the White House, which refused to cooperate with GAO’s investigation. This Administration has allowed serious ethical violations to go unchecked, which threatens the American people’s trust in their public officials.”
GAO examined three agencies — the departments of Health and Human Services and Interior and the Small Business Administration — to determine how well their ethics programs work.
Two of the three have work to do.
“Prior to February 2019 SBA did not have written procedures for initial ethics training and did not adequately document political appointees’ training dates,” GAO reported.
Interior’s ethics program suffers because of staffing shortages in its ethics office. That was the situation in November, when according to GAO, about 29 percent of the positions, all lawyers, in the office were empty.
The high vacancy rate in the ethics office “affected its ability to properly collect and review financial disclosure forms — one of the main responsibilities of the federal ethics program,” GAO said. The office received a flood of financial disclosure forms after Trump was elected, “but was unprepared to handle them,” the report added. “Furthermore, during 2017 one official was responsible for reviewing and certifying more than 300 public financial disclosure forms. The official was unable to balance proper and timely review of forms with other responsibilities that also included reviewing and certifying more than 800 confidential disclosure forms.”
Although the 4,000 political positions, including 1,700 requiring Senate confirmation, are too many, political appointees play an established role in American government. They help form policies developed by elected leaders. But appointees come and go with the elected leaders. Civil servants, who are there from one administration to the next, are the backbone of government and implement the policies set by the elected leaders.
Good government advocates support a public list of political appointees.
Teresa W. Gerton, president and chief executive of the National Academy of Public Administration, said: “I agree with the assessment that the public has a vested interest in knowing the political appointees serving in any administration, as they are doing much of the policy development, and transparency in government is essential.”
Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, said: “Transparency plays an important role in our nation’s governance by allowing citizens to know who are making key decisions that affect our health, safety and tax dollars. Transparency is also an important part of the checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches. It’s hard to provide the appropriate checks and balances when you don’t even know who to call to ask questions. Creating a real-time, up-to-date list of appointees might have been a heavy lift 20 years ago, but in this day and age should be straightforward.”
The lack of a political appointee list amounts to “a total breakdown in accountability,” said Paul C. Light, a New York University public service professor who has written extensively about political appointees. “It’s the Wild West in a world where accountability is essential.”