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

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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.

{mosads}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 Clinton 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 Ross, former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, and former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.

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 Biden 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.

{mossecondads}For example, voters might want to know whether a candidate would appoint an attorney general, like William Barr or Eric Holder, with extensive agency experience at the Department of Justice or someone like Jeff Sessions 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.”  

Tags 2020 campaign Amy Klobuchar Election Elizabeth Warren Eric Holder Heath Brown Hillary Clinton Jeff Sessions Joe Biden Ryan Zinke Scott Pruitt White House Wilbur Ross William Barr

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