Imagine you’re a CEO hired to turn around a large, money-losing company with $14 trillion in debt, annual revenue of $3 trillion and a customer base of about 325 million people.
You’ve just signed a four-year contract, and your immediate task is to hire a new management team of more than 4,000. And you’ve got 90 days before your first day on the job.
That’s roughly what President-elect Donald Trump and his transition team have been up against as they scramble to create a new administration to oversee the U.S. government, an enterprise with more employees that the top Fortune 500 companies combined.
So far, Trump has named all but four of his choices for Cabinet-level positions. That seems like a good start.
But with just one month left before his inauguration, the transition team will need to step up its recruiting to fill a long list of positions in a very short time, according to Matt Stier, founding president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan group that advises incoming administrations.
“Those (Cabinet nominations) are one-offs,” he said. “In order to get your team in place you have to be presenting slates of candidates.”
Trump could decide not to fill appointments he’s been given since he’s promised to cut the fat out of government. But he may not be able to go as far as wants since thousands of so-called career appointments are beyond his reach.
The full slate of top government jobs up for grabs is published every four years in the so-called Plum Book, named for the volume’s purple cover. Of the more than 8,300 jobs listed in the latest edition about half are “career appointments,” over which the incoming administration has only limited discretion
Hundreds more are part time or honorary posts, including members of dozens of commissions, foundations and other federal bodies. Many of those job are unpaid.
In theory, the appointment process is intended to give a new president broad authority to reshape government policies to reflect the campaign promises that propelled them to the White House.
But while Trump has promised sweeping changes on his first day in office, it will take much longer to get his management team in place. The delay begins with the confirmation process for the more than 1,100 appointments that will require Senate confirmation.
Trump will likely face fewer delays than recent incoming administrations, for two reasons. First, he will have the support of a bare majority in the Senate. And, thanks to a 2013 change in Senate rules, Democrats can no longer resort to the traditional filibuster threat to block a routine nomination.
But there are still plenty of procedural options for Democrats to slow the approval for Trump’s nominees, according to Anne O’Connell, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied the presidential appointment process.
“They can submit 200 questions to (secretary of State choice) Rex Tillerson about his business dealings and ties to Russia and those questions all have to be answered,” she said.
Even for positions that don’t require Senate approval, Trump may also find that his hiring discretion is more limited than he is accustomed to as the head of a private company.
One of Trump’s key campaign pledges, for example, involves a major rollback of Obama-era regulations. Some of those changes can be made by executive order. But much of the government’s regulatory infrastructure is embedded in dozens of independent, “alphabet” agencies, such as the CFTC, FCC, SEC and others.
Many of those agencies have bipartisan appointment requirements, and many current incumbents were named for terms that expire over the next four years.
“The president can’t name everyone all at once, so it takes a while for these regulatory agencies to turn over to the control by the president’s party,” said O’Connell
Trump has also vowed to shrink the size of government, a pledge most modern presidents have made before taking office. Toward that end, he has promised a hiring freeze on federal employees and cutting the workforce through attrition. That policy will extend a long-term trend that has been underway since federal employment peaked in the 1960s.
Trump has also promised to use the appointment process to hire managers who will make government more efficient, and run it more like he runs his business. That, too, may prove to be more challenging that Trump expects.
Though the overall number of federal workers has fallen in the last five decades, the federal bureaucracy is still riddled with overlapping and redundant functions and staffing layers. But much of that bureaucracy is defended by congressional backers who are loathe to see cuts that might reduce their influence or eliminate jobs in their district.
It’s one of “checks and balances” that will call for a very different management style, say transition advisors like Stier. Unlike the handful of directors on the board of The Trump Organization, the president-elect will now need to win the backing of 100 senators and 435 members of the House of Representatives.,
“You can’t run the government like a business,” said Stier. “Congress makes that impossible.”
Trump has also vowed to “drain the swamp” in Washington by relying heavily on political outsiders like himself. So far, few of Trump’s top-level Cabinet choices have experience working in the federal government.
Without experienced hands in lower-level positions, though, the new administration could have a difficult time navigating that swamp, said O’Connell.
“Cabinet secretaries don’t do the day-to-day management of the team,” she said. “But if the deputy secretaries don’t have some government experience then I think we’re in for a very rocky road in terms of management.”