The Logic of Collective Inaction: Senatorial Delay in Executive Nominations

The forthcoming article “The Logic of Collective Inaction: Senatorial Delay in Executive Nominations” by Ian Ostrander is summarized here:

The highest levels of the U.S. bureaucracy are staffed through a process in which presidents nominate and the Senate confirms appointments.  While presidents have a strong incentive to control the policy output of bureaucratic agencies by nominating like-minded and responsive individuals to these leadership posts, a president’s opposition in the Senate has a similar incentive to resist such appointments.  Like many other aspects of contemporary politics, the executive nominations process is characterized by endemic delay due to strategic and partisan obstructionism.

Building on prior literature, this study suggests a conditional theory of delay based upon the ideological predispositions of agencies relative to a president.  Specifically, the theory suggests that one must examine the reversion point of the executive nominations process that occurs during stalemate.  Importantly, agency characteristics influence policy outcomes during vacancies because career civil servants often fill the gaps within the ranks of political appointees.  As such, agency-level characteristics are essential to understanding the incentives behind strategic delay.  The motivation of the study is to explain why some nominations are delayed while other, seemingly similar, nominations are not.

The findings of this project contribute to the understanding of the executive nominations process in several ways.  First, evidence suggests that opposition senators may in fact be protecting their allied agencies from presidential politicization.  This blocks presidents from being able to control recalcitrant agencies through the appointment of loyal ideological allies.  Second, the findings suggest that major independent regulatory commissions are particularly favorite targets of delay.  Such boards, with their small size and quorum requirements, are the most vulnerable to vacancies.  Third, I find that it is often the mid-tier appointments that are delayed.  Such nominations may be just important enough to have policy relevance and yet not publically visible enough to deter senators from overt obstruction.  Combined, these findings increase our understanding of the executive nominations process as a site of inter-branch conflict over the policy output of executive agencies.

Recent reform of the Senate filibuster rules with respect to executive nominations has made discussion of delay in nominations much more salient.  These findings suggest that many key nominations were in fact being delayed and that the reason for such obstruction was strategic partisan gain rather than a lack of qualification or issues of impropriety.   Furthermore, the results suggest that obstructing senators may be engaging in delay for the purpose of gaining real policy benefits during the stalemate and not due to a spirit of uncooperativeness or mere retaliation.  With bureaucracies making an increasing proportion of public policy in an era of partisan gridlock, battles over executive nominations are likely to continue well into the future.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.