Did Trump shrink the government? Not according to the Plum Book
- By Natalie Alms
- Jan 11, 2021
The quadrennial book containing lists of jobs filled by appointment in the executive and legislative branches known as the Plum Book came out last week, offering some details, but not a full picture, of senior level positions in the last year of the Trump administration.
Officially known as the "United States Government Policy and Supporting Positions," the Plum Book lists both filled and vacant positions that may be subject to non-competitive appointments. For job seekers, it offers insight into what jobs might be up for grabs in an incoming administration. It contains details about positions like what agency they're in, the previous person in the position and their salary level.
The most recent edition contains information from June 2020, as reported to the Office of Personnel Management by agencies and offices. This edition has arrived later after the election than previous editions had in past years.
The book's listings include appointments that do and don't require Senate confirmation, non-career members of the Senior Executive Service and Schedule C employees, as well as other confidential or policy-determining positions at GS-14 and above that are excepted from the competitive service by law.
Although it's often thought of as an anthology of political appointments, it also includes career Senior Executive Service positions and Senior Foreign Service officer positions that are career positions.
Because the book's information is essentially a snapshot right before an administration heads out the door, it can be difficult to use it to draw conclusions about who has been in the administration or how many appointment positions there were, said Max Stier, President and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service.
The book also contains some inaccuracies. For example, over past recent presidencies, not all Senate-confirmed positions made it into the book, said David Lewis, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University whose focus of study is the presidency, executive branch politics and public administration.
For those and other reasons, the book garnered some attention on the Hill last year as some lawmakers pushed to make it into an online, continually updated resource, although the bill didn't make it all the way through Congress.
Some data missing
This year, information about positions in the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Office of the Director for National Intelligence and other offices doesn't appear in the book at all.
The appendices of the book are often used to reference totals for the number of positions listed, said Christina Condreay, an associate for the research and evaluation team at the Partnership for Public Service.
This year's Plum Book appendix, however, doesn't list the totals for at least seven offices and agencies that are included in the body of the book, including the Postal Service and the Office of the Inspector General for the United States International Trade Commission, she said. Vacant positions in the Senior Executive Service are also usually included in the "general" category for the total count, but weren't this year.
Nonetheless, the information in the book still offers some insights into appointments in the last year of the Trump administration.
Although the forward in the book says that it lists over 9,000 positions, the real number of positions in the book that will need to be filled by the incoming Biden administration is probably closer to 3,800 to 4,000, said Condreay. The 2016 Plum book was also reported to contain around 4,000 positions that would need to be filled.
About 230 of those positions are "stand-up critical" positions that have be filled when the new administration takes office in order for the government to function, said Terry Sullivan, the executive director of the White House Transition Project.
In terms of overall numbers of Senate-confirmed appointees, there hasn't been much significant variation in large and visible agencies - those under the Chief Financial Officers Act - since 2000, Condreay said. In the 2000 Plum Book, there were 766 positions requiring Senate confirmation. In 2016, 818. In 2020, 826.
That's despite Trump officials' claims that they would shrink the workforce, including the number of appointees.
"The number of political appointees will drop significantly," said Trump spokesperson Cliff Sims in 2016. "'Drain the swamp' was not just a campaign slogan."
The process of filling these Senate-confirmed positions has become an increasingly lengthy process over the years. The Trump administration in particular has had difficulty in filling these positions, Sullivan said. As of Jan. 7, the Trump administration has had 539 positions filled out of 757 key positions requiring Senate confirmation, according to a tracker run by the Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service. The administration has also seen high turnover in Cabinet positions.
The overall numbers for appointments not requiring Senate confirmations have also been "relatively stable," Lewis said.
Non-career SES positions and Schedule C appointment numbers have varied, however. These types of appointees work as high-level administrators in agencies and in positions where they work closely with top appointees or agency heads.
At the comparable place in the term of the Obama administration, 2012, there were "significantly fewer" appointees in SES or Schedule C positions than there are listed in this 2020 Plum book, Lewis said.
"I think that the Trump administration has been pretty aggressive here in the middle using these appointees to try to influence policymaking in the agencies," he said. Even if the number of some types of appointees has been relatively stable, the political influence of the White House in agencies has gone up, Lewis said.
"That is partly because of the ideological nature of the [appointees] that have been selected, but also the president's willingness to use his flexibility under the Federal Vacancies Act to personally select the kinds of people that will fill Senate-confirmed jobs when there's not a Senate confirmed appointee in those agencies," he explained.
The Federal Vacancies Act allows officials to temporarily perform the duties of Senate-confirmed appointee positions.
The overall number of the federal employees has also increased slightly since 2016, according to OPM data, despite promises at the beginning of the current administration that the size of the workforce would shrink.
Historically, the number of political appointees has gone up over time since the Plum Book first started being released in the 1950s. The existence of large numbers of political appointees can create problems with transitions and governing, Stier said.
"The very process of selection enables a president or his or her senior people to hire folks that are being hired on the basis of their loyalty to an individual to an individual rather than their loyalty to the American public," he said.
This year's Plum Book also lands in the midst of uncertainty about an executive order issued last fall that could move swaths of civil service positions into the excepted service, removing them from civil service protections and making hiring and firing people in the positions easier. Attempts to block the order using the appropriations bill last month failed, but the Biden administration is expected to overturn the order.
If the order were to stay, the new schedule might have to be added as a new category in the next Plum book, Lewis said. That could make the next Plum book include more positions, since Schedule F "expands the category of positions" by including a "broader class" or "positions that could have some influence on policy or report directly to policymaking or policymakers," he explained.
Whether positions in the new schedule would be added to the next Plum book or not, the creation of the new schedule has sparked concerns about its potential to facilitate the 'burrowing in' of political appointees into the bureaucracy to stay after the president who appointed them leaves.
Schedule F is "a political appointment in all respects other than the name," Stier said. "My hope is that the Biden team gets rid of it as soon as possible."