Trump proved importance of staffing decisions — who would Dem candidates pick?


Last week was white paper week on the campaign trail. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) announced a major infrastructure plan, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) proposed a significant increase in teacher pay, and — not to be outdone — Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) maintained her wonkish bonafides with a detailed approach to reform farm policy. Meanwhile, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke has been roundly criticized for the absence of specifics in his soaring rhetoric.

All things equal, providing primary voters with these details is probably a good thing. Yet, the call for ever bolder and specific proposals overstates their utility for voters who typically have weak policy preferences.


In our highly polarized times, a newly elected president also can’t do very much. Political scientist Julia Azari has long questioned whether even those presidents who’ve claimed an electoral mandate have translated that to frequent policy successes. An incoming administration has to choose wisely among numerous priorities and will likely only get the chance to advance one or two major new policies.

However, as calls grow louder for more details on policy, we hear almost nothing from the candidates on an area where they are guaranteed to act quickly act if elected: staffing and personnel.

This is puzzling because pundits frequently recall President Reagan’s adage that personnel is policy. A newly elected president must make dozens of cabinet appointments and decide on hundreds of new White House staffers within weeks of the election.

According to the Center for Presidential Transitions, thousands of additional appointments can wait a bit longer, but major delays in these staffing decisions — a quarter requiring Senate approval — can hobble a new administration.

The Trump administration has proven the importance of staffing decisions as well as the consequence of poor personnel planning.

After defeating Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonQueer Marine veteran launches House bid after incumbent California Rep. Susan Davis announces retirement Poll: Trump neck and neck with top 2020 Democrats in Florida Former immigration judge fined, temporarily banned from federal service for promoting Clinton policies MORE in 2016, the Trump transition team largely scrapped a staffing plan developed during the campaign, preferring a chaotic and haphazard approach that favored lobbyists and donors.

To date, Trump has appointed 230 former lobbyists and, based on tracking by Bloomberg, at least 10 current and former members of the Trump cabinet have been involved in financial scandals, including high profile investigations of Commerce Secretary Wilbur RossWilbur Louis RossOvernight Energy: Top presidential candidates to skip second climate forum | Group sues for info on 'attempts to politicize' NOAA | Trump allows use of oil reserve after Saudi attacks Group sues Trump administration for info related to 'attempts to politicize NOAA' NOAA chief praises agency scientists after statement backing up Trump tweet MORE, former Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeInterior gains new watchdog The Hill's Morning Report - Gillibrand drops out as number of debaters shrinks BLM issues final plan for reduced Utah monument MORE, and former EPA Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOvernight Energy: Trump administration to repeal waterway protections| House votes to block drilling in Arctic refuge| Administration takes key step to open Alaskan refuge to drilling by end of year Trump administration to repeal waterway protections The Hill's Morning Report - Gillibrand drops out as number of debaters shrinks MORE.

This personnel process has also led to an extremely poor retention of key staff. Brookings shows that the 65 percent turnover rate of high-ranking officials in the first two years of the Trump administration dwarfed the previous four presidents by a wide margin.

There’s no doubt that staffing matters to a new president, making the relative silence from major candidates curious and worrisome.

Some may fear the negative reaction to rumors that former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden lead shrinks, Sanders and Warren close gap: poll Biden allies: Warren is taking a bite out of his electability argument Budowsky: Donald, Boris, Bibi — The right in retreat MORE would announce his presidential campaign alongside Stacey Abrams, former candidate for Georgia governor, as his vice presidential running mate. Yet, it is unnecessary for a candidate to propose specific names to clarify their views on what they look for in a staff.


For example, voters might want to know whether a candidate would appoint an attorney general, like William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrGOP signals unease with Barr's gun plan NRA says Trump administration memo a 'non-starter' Sinema touts bipartisan record as Arizona Democrats plan censure vote MORE or Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderEric Holder says Trump is subject to prosecution after leaving office Eric Holder: Democrats 'have to understand' that 'borders mean something' Trump lawyers ask judge to toss out Dems' tax return lawsuit MORE, with extensive agency experience at the Department of Justice or someone like Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsPelosi: Lewandowski should have been held in contempt 'right then and there' Democrats bicker over strategy on impeachment McCabe says he would 'absolutely not' cut a deal with prosecutors MORE or John Ashcroft who would bring extensive political experience from Congress. Would they favor a cabinet of independent experts or a team of political loyalists? How important would diversity be to personnel decisions and would lobbyists be disqualified from consideration?

The answer to these questions would tell voters a lot about a candidate’s views on leadership, willingness to delegate authority and their ethics. This would also be an area of contrast for Democratic candidates from the apparent lack of concern for the appearance of conflicts of interest from the Trump administration.

We are still months from the first Democratic primaries and caucuses. There is plenty of time for detailed discussions of policy and a robust "personnel week" on the campaign trail.

Heath Brown is an associate professor of public policy, City University of New York, Graduate Center and John Jay College. He is the author of "Lobbying the New President."