March 22, 2018 — The political appointment process is often seen as political patronage — presidents rewarding their supporters and friends with government jobs. But a long-time Washington insider contended in a talk at the University of Houston Law Center Tuesday that the practice is solidly grounded in the country's democratic system.
"People go to the polls and vote for candidate A or candidate B and assume the winner will be surrounded by the people he wants," said Chase Untermeyer who served as director of presidential personnel for George H.W. Bush and advised him on an estimated 3,500 federal appointments.
"The losers throw up all kinds of roadblocks," he said, and while the Senate confirmation process is often seen as contentious, 95 percent of nominees "sail through."
During a period of more than 30 years, Untermeyer held positions at all four levels of government – local, state, national, and international.
He was a Texas state representative prior to serving under Bush as vice-president and president; he was appointed assistant secretary of the Navy by President Ronald Reagan; selected as chairman of the Texas State Board of Education by then-Gov. George W. Bush; and later named U.S. ambassador to Qatar by President Bush. He is currently a consultant, chairman of the Qatar-America Institute, chairman of the Houston Committee on Foreign Relations, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
While introducing Untermeyer, Dean Leonard M. Baynes cited the speaker's lengthy list of credentials, jokingly understating, "He has a wealth of experience." He also commended the Federalist Society and American Constitution Society, groups at opposite ends of the political spectrum, for coming together to co-host a discussion on an important issue of the day.
Untermeyer outlined three phases of the political appointment process, starting with the selection of potential nominees, vetting of candidates, and finally winning Senate confirmation.
He said most people would consider "qualifications" for the position as the most important factor, but he said the real key is the "ability" to get the job done and carry out the president's policies by working with others. "Qualifications are good," he said, "but the real question is are the people able. No one deals in isolation. There is a great deal of overlap among the various governmental departments."
He said an appointee also must work effectively with senators and representatives from both sides of the aisle, their staffs, committees and sub-committees on matters ranging from policy to budgeting. "Nothing gets done without the money," he said.
Dealing with special interest and citizen groups, the press, state and local elected officials, and demographics, presents challenges in finding the right person for a job, Untermeyer said.
"No matter the subject, you can be sure there is a group representing its interests," he said. "You hear a lot about the NRA, but you could also have a group interested in plastic spoons."
As to the media, a nominee must be prepared to handle those who are simply looking for a quick sound bite as well as others who bring specialized expertise to an interview. Many other factors must also be weighed during the selection process, he said, including gender, race, religion, and geographic representation.
"The effect of all of these pressures is to pick one of these people to send to the president," Untermeyer said.
Once a candidate is picked, he said, they are handed "reams and reams" of paper and given the daunting task of detailing the most personal aspects of their life, employment background, finances, and anything else that might preclude their appointment. After a thorough FBI background check, Untermeyer said they are asked the final question: "Is there anything else that you haven't told us that would embarrass you or the president?"
The final phase of the appointment process is confirmation by the Senate, which Untermeyer pointed out is almost always successful, but is sometimes harsher than it needs to be.
Progress on each of these stages is moving slower than it used to, he said, "which is why the Trump Administration, which has other problems, is taking so long." President Kennedy filled his ranks in three months, he said, while Trump "still has enormous vacancies" into his second year in office.
"The real challenge for the political appointee is to work well with the civil servants who really do want to work well with the political appointees," Untermeyer said. "The simplest way to make things work is sitting down and talking about it."