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Blog Post | November 5, 2018

Building An Agency Tracker to Monitor Government Appointments

Independent Agencies

The Independent Federal Agencies Leadership Tracker monitors appointments to agency leadership positions through the confirmation process and beyond. The initiative is part of the Revolving Door Project’s effort to even the playing field by empowering ordinary people with information previously hoarded by special interest groups.

The ability to nominate principal government officials is one of the executive branch’s most important powers. Though their degree of independence varies by agency, appointees that survive the Senate confirmation process have the power to bolster a president’s vision through hiring decisions, budgeting and spending, and formal rulemaking processes. There are over 150 such appointments[1]  to just under forty independent federal agencies tasked with everything from overseeing the country’s nuclear arsenal to ensuring adequate protection for government whistleblowers. The purpose of this tracker is to make it easier for the public to hold their elected officials accountable for federal agency leadership appointments.

The Independent Federal Agencies Leadership Tracker is updated on a biweekly basis, and includes information on both current and proposed leadership of independent federal agencies. The leadership composition varies by agency; most consist of a board or commission, and many are forbidden by statute from being governed entirely by members of a single political party. The tracker provides information on the current and proposed makeup of independent federal agency leadership, as well as the number of board members or commissioners, current and upcoming vacancies, term lengths and rules governing when officials must vacate their positions after their terms expire, and the party affiliations for members of boards that require political balance. The data are compiled from a variety of sources, including agency homepages, Congressional Research Reports, the Legislative Information System’s Senate nominations database and the United States Government Manual.

Insomuch as personnel is policy, administrative strategy with respect to agency leadership is a powerful indicator — one that deserves a proportionate amount of scrutiny from voters. Previously, however, there was no centralized, up-to-date resource for members of the public interested in keeping track.

It is worth noting that the process of collecting this material was unduly burdensome. Online information was often out-of-date, and some federal sources offered conflicting accounts. Government records were especially opaque regarding the political affiliations of board members and commissioners, despite the fact that most agencies legally require a degree of political balance at their heads.

For instance, in 2011, now-Chairman Ajit Pai was nominated to serve as a Commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Yet nowhere in the Obama administration’s press release is it mentioned that Pai’s nomination occurred at the behest of then Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

That ordinary Americans would find it difficult to determine whether President Barack Obama or Minority Leader Mitch McConnell were responsible for such a key appointment undermines basic principles of civic engagement and democratic (in the sense of democracy, not the Democratic Party) accountability.

Transparency is vital to effective governance; the legitimacy of elected representatives is tied to the idea that they can be held accountable by their constituents. One of the takeaways from assembling this tracker is that the federal appointments process is not particularly accessible to the public, and that this lack of transparency unfairly advantages those with time, know-how, and (typically) vested financial interest in who is put in charge of agencies. With this tracker, the Revolving Door Project hopes to tilt the balance in favor of the public, whose interest government is meant to serve.

PLEASE NOTE: If you see something, say something! This tracker is a work in progress. If you notice something erroneous and/or missing, please email oversight[at]cepr.net so we can fix it!

[1] Greene, Michael & Nagel, Jared. 2017. “Presidential Appointments to Full-Time Regulatory and Other Collegial Boards and Commissions, 114th Congress.” Congressional Research Service. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R45029.pdf

Independent Agencies
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