Washington Wednesday: Cabinet turnover

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday the 19th of June, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up on The World and Everything in It: Washington Wednesday.

The Pentagon has been without a permanent leader since Defense Secretary James Mattis stepped down in December. Yesterday, the troops found out they’ll be waiting awhile longer.

REICHARD: Acting Secretary Patrick Shanahan suddenly withdrew his nomination to become the next secretary of Defense. That followed news of an FBI investigation into domestic violence in Shanahan’s family.

In a statement Shanahan said continuing the confirmation process would—quote—“force my three children to relive a traumatic chapter in our family’s life and reopen wounds we have worked years to heal.”

EICHER: President Trump announced Army Secretary Mark Esper to step in as acting secretary of defense. Congressman Mac Thornberry—the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee—urged the president to move quickly.

In a statement Thornberry said—quoting now—“The uncertainty surrounding this vacant office encourages our enemies and unsettles our allies.”

REICHARD: This is only one of many administration vacancies. Those exist in a range of positions, but today we’re going to talk specifically about the president’s cabinet.

And here now to do that is Professor Kathryn Tenpas. She’s a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution. Her area of study is presidential politics and specifically White House staffing.

Professor, good morning to you.

TENPAS: Oh, thank you. Good morning to you as well.

REICHARD: Let’s start with the number of cabinet spots. How many are considered cabinet-level, and how many are vacant at this moment?

TENPAS: Right. So, there are 15 positions that are cabinet positions that are in a line of presidential succession.

And so at this point in the administration, President Trump has had eight of his 15 cabinet heads depart. And at this time in President Obama’s administration, after two years, he had lost four. So he’s more than doubled. If you took all the years of President Obama’s administration, he would have lost six total. And that’s after four complete years.

And if you go back even further, if you go back to Reagan—my data goes back to Reagan—and you can see he’s just an outlier. The level of cabinet turnover is very high and there’s lots of consequences to that.

But the bottom line is simply that if you’re looking at the White House staff, senior White House staff or whether you’re looking at cabinet secretaries, the level of turnover is off the charts compared to his predecessors.

REICHARD: What might be the practical effect of having interim heads at these agencies?

TENPAS: Well, you have to have somebody as an interim head. Decisions have to be made. They need to be consulting and meeting with the president on a regular basis. So somebody has to take the helm. I think the issue is that the interims are staying in this interim position or acting position for a lot longer than normal. And I think that’s bad for morale. I think people who are working for the secretary, they sort of treat the person as a substitute teacher. They’re not really sure how long they’re going to be there.

And I think it’s all-around better for government when you have people who have been confirmed by the Senate, they’ve gone through the process and they’ve been fully vetted and they serve in these positions. To have all the actings and things like that, it just creates for a lot of uncertainty. And it’s not just the president and the uncertainty or the people who work in the bureaucracy.

But it can trickle down to voters as well. So, it’s not a good situation, I think, no matter how you look at it. 

REICHARD: We’ve seen some pretty heated Senate confirmation battles over some of President Trump’s nominees. That particularly goes for the judicial picks, but even some of the cabinet positions.

Has the White House given any indication of whether it thinks it’s just simpler to go with acting heads, rather than deal with the confirmation headaches? Is that what we’re seeing, or is it something else?

TENPAS: Well, President Trump did say publicly that he thinks actings give him for flexibility. And, like I said, maybe they do give him more flexibility, maybe it gives him more time to figure out who he really wants to be in that position, but I think the bottom line is that it will undermine his effort to implement some of his programs and policies and campaign promises.

In any administration if you go from year one to year two to year three to year four, the process of recruiting people into your administration gets more difficult. And that’s because the first year everybody’s hot off the campaign trail and they’re excited about the victory and all the promise that awaits them. And then as you get into the governing part, you realize how hard it is. You realize all the sort of opposition that you have on your various programs.

Over time, the jobs are very stressful. They’re very demanding. Hours are long. So people leave and so then you go to the second string, second wave of people, which is in a sense the second string. And then you’re onto the third string.

Because President Trump has had so much turnover, they started with a small recruiting pool. The campaign itself was small. He said he didn’t want a lot of people who had worked in prior Republican administrations. There were a lot of Never Trumpers, so the usual suspects that might work in the Trump administration aren’t really available for this president.

So, part of the reason there may be actings and the actings may be serving at such great lengths of time is because they’re having trouble recruiting people.

But, number two, can also get through the vetting process. It’s pretty demanding if you have a complicated financial situation or a work situation. You’re really kind of in a limbo for several months. And that can be hard on a family. That can be hard on a professional’s future aspirations and things like that.

So, the Senate confirmation process is a difficult one. And so it could be that we have so many actings because we’re having trouble finding people to fill these positions.

REICHARD: Is this a new normal, or do you expect fewer vacancies in the coming months?

TENPAS: You know, I think they’re going to keep trying to fill them. I’m sure they are. But I think it’s a new normal for—just for this administration. Because if I look back at my data for the other presidents, you don’t see—you see some actings, but not at this high level. And I think that this administration, if they’re going to be known for something, it’s going to be known for breaking molds. They do a lot of things differently than their predecessors. That’s kind of how they roll and that doesn’t seem to bother them.

At the same time, it could be having some—doing some long-term damage to the institutions and the various agencies and departments because of this leadership vacuum. And without those leaders, when you’re only having temporary people, I think it stifles your progress.

REICHARD: Professor Kathryn Dunn Tenpas is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Professor, thanks so much for your time today. I really appreciate it.

TENPAS: Yeah, you’re welcome. Thank you.

(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) In this April 2, 2019, file photo, Secretary of the Army Mark Esper speaks during a House Armed Services Committee budget hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. 

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