In Washington, personnel is policy. Which means the helplessness of the American public when it comes to choosing those in charge of the massive federal bureaucracy is astounding. Voters can barely even spectate — let alone have a say — in the selection of the Cabinet members and others whose actions will shape their lives as much as the president’s, if not more.
There is, however, an easy and effective solution: Give Americans more time to delve into the records of a president’s nominees to determine more accurately who should fill the halls of the next White House. Just as presidential candidates cannot leave their party’s convention without having selected a vice president, neither should they leave without selecting the rest of their vital executive team. Upon accepting a presidential nomination from their party, candidates should offer the public a list of Cabinet members. Although the president appoints many more individuals who will ultimately have a hand in crafting policy, Cabinet members are among the most important decision-makers in modern government. The list needn’t be final — after all, appointees still need congressional approval even after being subject to public review. But as it stands, very few presidential nominees ever fail to pass muster in front of Congress, meaning a pre-released list would give both the public and Congress more time to learn about nominees, while increasing transparency in the overall process.
Over time, federal bureaucracy has grown massive. The original executive branch had only three departments: war, treasury and foreign affairs. Today, there are 15 executive departments and hundreds of federal agencies — so many that their exact number has become a subject of debate. Similarly, there was no White House staff until 1939, and then there were only six members, compared with several thousand today. As the executive branch’s ranks grew, so did its weight in the policymaking process: Abraham Lincoln signed 12 executive orders, Barack Obama signed 277. Two months into his presidency, Donald Trump has his signature on more than 45.
Paradoxically, as the president’s powers have grown, the presidency has become less about policy and more about politics. Presidents generally make the final call on policy decisions, and, for better or worse, their names are the ones that go down in history. But the day-to-day business of government flows not through the Oval Office, but through the offices of Cabinet secretaries, deputy and assistant secretaries, chief financial officers, general counsels, agency heads, ambassadors and others. More than 1,000 appointees are subject to Congress’s approval, and there’s a brigade of others — such as White House staffers, senior advisers and press officers — that are not.
Despite this massive expansion, the rules of the game remain the same: Americans still select only their president, and they are hardly given any time to weigh the virtues and vices of the president’s nominees, who will ultimately help determine policy.
Ostensibly, confirmation hearings are the forums to litigate presidential appointments. In reality, however, this process is too little too late. It’s not a secret that most nominations are decided in the Congress’s antechambers. The hearing rooms are usually little more than a stage for political Kabuki theater. And there is a grain of truth to the protests that blocking Cabinet appointees is counterproductive. Governing is a complex task that is already slowed, if not stopped, by a year-long election cycle. Then, once the election is over, there is a pressing need to return to the business of government. Politicians who stand in the way are accused of obstructionism. They also face pressure from their party and interest groups. Even if the Senate blocked a nominee, the effect would probably be minimal: At best, the president would install the same nominee with a recess appointment (Trump did consider this course of action); at worst, the White House would replace the nominee with someone who has similar or worse credentials.
Indeed, confirmation hearings are such a foregone conclusion that it is not uncommon for several of them to be scheduled for the same time on the same day, as was the case with the Trump administration. This cannot be explained as benign prudence or simple efficiency. It is an absurdity for citizens to have to choose whether to listen to the energy secretary or the treasury secretary; the commerce secretary, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator or the ambassador to the United Nations; the CIA director or the secretary of housing and urban development.
Politics is going through a confidence crisis. Millennials like us will make 46 percent of the electorate — 52 million votes — in 2020. Their trust in government is at a historic low, and millions have poured to the streets voicing a clarion call for change. If we are to restore faith in government, the system has to adapt: Requiring that candidates name their Cabinet nominees before they leave their party’s convention is a good place to start.
The current moment presents a unique opportunity for such a proposal. The incumbent candidate already has a cabinet in place. Thus, the Republican National Committee could easily sign on to this proposal, hoping that such a move would both emphasize his policies and offer ammunition against his future Democratic challenger. The Democratic National Committee recently elected new leadership, and they are scrambling for a new direction, meaning that this proposal would be an excellent opportunity for the Democrats to publicly air their commitment to transparency, democracy and inclusive decision-making. After all, it’s just good democratic sense: If it’s the people’s decision, give the people a real choice — let them know who will get to shape their future.