According to the United States Office of Government Ethics, a political appointee is "any employee who is appointed by the President, the Vice President, or agency head". As of 2016, there are around 4,000 political appointment positions which an incoming administration needs to review, and fill or confirm, of which about 1,200 require Senate confirmation.
These positions are published in the United States Government Policy and Supporting Positions (the Plum Book), a new edition of which is released after each United States presidential election.
There are four basic categories of political appointments:
Political appointees, referring broadly to anyone appointed by the President, the Vice President, or agency head, are subject to more ethics restrictions than regular executive-branch employees. There are two categories of appointees, and each category is subject to additional and slightly different ethics restrictions.
Political appointees are required to take an ethics pledge not to accept gifts from lobbyists. This is because of Executive Order 13490 Under Section 102 of Executive Order 12674, political appointees who are appointed by the president are not allowed to receive any income from outside employment or activities. Exceptions to the gift rule include:
Political appointees sometimes attempt to transfer to a career position in the competitive service, excepted service, or Senior Executive Service. This practice, known as "burrowing in", is desired by employees due to increased pay and job security, as career positions do not end when a presidential administration changes. As these appointed positions are selected noncompetitively, while career employees are supposed to be selected on the basis of merit and without political influence, these conversions are subject to extra scrutiny. Since 2010, such conversions require advance approval from OPM, and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) periodically audits the conversions. In 2008, members of Congress criticized the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice for improperly allowing political employees to convert to career positions.
In the politics of the United States, the system of political appointments comes from a history of the spoils system (also known as a patronage system) which is a practice where a political party, after winning an election, gives government jobs to its supporters, friends and relatives as a reward for working toward victory. The term was derived from the phrase "to the victor belong the spoils" by New York Senator William L. Marcy, referring to the victory of the Jackson Democrats in the election of 1828, with the term "spoils" meaning goods or benefits taken from the loser in a competition, election or military victory. Though it is commonly assumed that the patronage system in the United States first came into general use during Andrew Jackson's presidency, it actually has an older history. President Thomas Jefferson, a Democratic-Republican, favored a policy of keeping rival Federalists out of government.
The patronage system thrived in the U.S. federal government until 1883. In 1820 Congress limited federal administrators to four-year terms, which led to constant turnover; by the 1860s and the Civil War, patronage had led to widespread inefficiency and political corruption. Although it used to be confined to cabinet positions, department heads, and foreign ambassadorships, by the 1860s patronage had spread to low-level government positions. This meant that when the incumbent political party lost a presidential election, the federal government underwent wholesale turnover.
On July 2, 1881, Charles J. Guiteau, a disaffected and mentally unstable political office seeker, assassinated President James Garfield. This highlighted how much the patronage problem had gotten out of control, and shifted public opinion, convincing the United States that the President of the United States had more important things to do than to engage in patronage. Congress was eventually spurred to pass the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883, which created a Civil Service Commission and advocated a merit system for selecting government employees.
In addition, passage of the Hatch Act of 1939 forbade the intimidation or bribery of voters and restricted political campaign activities by federal employees. It prohibited using any public funds designated for relief or public works for electoral purposes. It forbade officials paid with federal funds from using promises of jobs, promotion, financial assistance, contracts, or any other benefit to coerce campaign contributions or political support, which restricted most partisan political activities of federal employees. By 1980, 90% of federal positions had become part of the civil service system, which lead to state and local governments to employed large patronage systems. Big-city political machines in places such as New York City, Boston, and Chicago thrived in the late nineteenth century. Being as a patronage system not only rewarded political supporters for past support, it also encouraged future support, because persons who have a patronage job would try to retain it by campaigning for the party at the next election. Large-scale patronage systems declined steadily during the twentieth century. During the Progressive Era (1900-1920), "good government" reformers overthrew political machines and installed civil service systems. Chicago, under Mayor Richard J. Daley, remained the last bastion of patronage, existing in its purest form until the late 1970s. In today's more observant standards, politicians wanted to pull away from the negative intonation of the name casting of Patronage, and Spoil system which led them to rename the process "Political Appointments".
The United States has more political appointees in government than any other industrialized democracy in the world. Even though the United States has one of the largest populations of political appointees in the system, the efficiency of political appointees is constantly shifting. Political appointees are engraved in everyday decisions even making the final call on major events. As of 2013, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services was lacking a Senate-confirmed administrator since 2006 when Marilyn Tavenner was acting administrator. At least 60 positions for appointment remain vacant and 45 positions have remained vacant for more than a year.
Judicial vacancies have also become a problem as well with numerous open seats for circuit and district judges left to be filled. At the conclusion of President Obama's first term, thirteen percent of presidential-appointee positions had not been filled. Political appointees also come under heat for their own actions including Ben Bernanke's involvement with private banks and also Michael Brown's involvement in Hurricane Katrina. One study published in the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory by Nick Gallo and David Lewis evaluated more than 350 managers with a program assessment rating tool ("PART") to determine efficacy and found that programs run by political appointees tended to be less effective. Furthermore, those with previous government experience or appointees who had not worked for a political campaign tended be more effective than appointees with experience in the business or non-profit sectors. Gallo and Lewis stated that they thought careerist and appointees should work in a balanced atmosphere to be more productive and share skills. Professional rapport between careerists and appointees is considered in a study of presidential environmental appointees by Matthew Auer. Auer found that oft-mentioned problems in the appointment system, such as short time-in-office and lack of government experience were less pronounced among top federal environmental appointees, across both Republican and Democratic administrations.