Saturday, February 11, 2017

Presidential Appointments:

So You Want to be a Presidential Appointee?

About a year and a half ago, I was contacted by the White House asking if I would be willing to be nominated for a Presidential appointment.  In the scheme of things, the position was a very low-profile one, but with the current spotlight on the nominees for major positions in the new Administration, I thought it might be instructive to some to outline what can happen, even if the case of much lower-level positions.

Here is an abbreviated timeline:

August 11, 2015:  I receive an e-mail from someone in the White House personnel office asking me if I would have an interest in serving on the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB).  

For those who do not know it, DNFSB is a small "independent organization within the executive branch of the United States Government, chartered with the responsibility of providing recommendations and advice to the President and the Secretary of Energy regarding public health and safety issues at Department of Energy defense nuclear facilities."

I had not been seeking a full-time position of any sort, but as soon as I am asked, I realize that this is a real honor and I decide to pursue it.  I speak to her by phone that day and meet with her two weeks later.

October 13, 2015:  I learn that they sent my name to President Obama and he authorized them to start the "vetting" process. 

The vetting process involves the collection and review of an extensive dossier on the individual--financial information, memberships, foreign travel, etc.  I have to fill out several lengthy forms, get some information from my accountant, and have two-hour telephone interview with someone from the White House to go over all the details in the forms.  I wish I'd kept a record of how many hours I spent on the forms.  It was substantial.  I had to report every stock I owned, every foreign consulting assignment my husband or I had, and every foreign trip I'd taken, whether for business or pleasure, for the past 10 years.  I had worked for DOE and OECD in that period.  I'd lived in two countries in the last 10 years and had traveled a lot.

I begin working with several people, one in the White House, and one at DNFSB.  In the course of this review, they ask for all my financial information.  This includes the investments in a family trust for which I am a trustee.  They identify 4 very small amounts of stock that are not in energy-related companies but with which, for some reason, the Department of Energy has some sort of contractual connection.  As a condition of my taking a position as a Board member of DNFSB, I have to sign a form saying I will either resign as a trustee or sell the stocks in question.  This requires my getting the consent of family members involved.

I also have to agree to resign as from any board or committee positions, including committees of the American Nuclear Society and of my local alumni association, both non-profit organizations.

The vetting process also requires interviews by the FBI and others.  They interview me, they interview several of my neighbors, and they send people from the US Embassy in Paris to interview several of my former colleagues and friends in France from the period that I worked for the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency.   I always wondered how much that all cost.

During the course of this process, I am contacted by a headhunter about a possible position on a corporate board of directors.  If I were to be selected for this position, it would be more money for less work than the DNFSB position.  Still, I decide the DNFSB position would be for the greater good, and I decline to pursue the position.

The process spins out over several months, and there are changes in my contacts, both in the White House and in DNFSB.

April 26, 2016:  The White House issues a press release nominating me to the position.  

I then discover there is more paperwork to be filled out, and I work with DNFSB people on the additional forms.  These forms are to be sent to the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), which has jurisdiction over the DNFSB.  One form turns out to be the same form I'd already completed for the White House.  However, it had been so long since I'd filled it out that I fill out half of it again before I realize it!  Another form turns out to be the wrong form from the Committee and needs to be redone.

During this period, I am contacted by someone who wants me to write an article (for no pay) for a publication of the OECD, my former employer, and an international organization of which the U.S. is a member.  I am advised not to accept this assignment out of concern that it could cause problems for the confirmation process.  No details are given.

June 29, 2016:  The last of the paperwork is sent to the SASC.

July 12, 2016:  The SASC reports my nomination out of Committee along with 141 military promotions and 2 other civilian nominations.

This is an exciting moment--they moved quickly, and I am only one step away from completing the process!  I need only a vote by the full Senate to confirm me.  But summer recess looms.

July 14, 2016:  Congress recesses for the summer without acting on my nomination and one other.  (They do act on the 141 military promotions and one of the civilian nominations.)

I am told that they may act on it when they reconvene in September 6. 

December 10, 2016:  The Senate adjourns without acting on my nomination, effectively killing it.

My White House contact tells me that there is some chance that this could still be acted on before the end of the Administration.  Technically, the White House has to renominate me (along with others who are in the same position). 

January 17, 2017:  I get a message from the White House telling me that I was not renominated.

The message tells me that this is the sender's last day.  In fact, when I reply to him an hour after receiving the message, I get an automatic reply that he is already gone!
Reflections:  Why tell this story?  My experience was certainly not unique.  Hundreds of appointments have dragged on for a long time, some for longer than mine.  While I was under consideration, an Obama nominee for an Ambassadorship died while she was awaiting confirmation.  I am not writing to lay blame on any institution or political party.  Each step of the process (except the SASC action) took longer than I expected it to.   

Many appointments are delayed for political reasons or because of controversies about the individuals. Since this was not the case for me, I had hopes that my appointment might move faster.  But there may have been factors that were never shared with me.  The position I was to fill was being held by a Board member whose term had expired.  Officially, this was not a factor.  As soon as someone new is appointed, the person in the position leaves.  This is technically the rule, but did it delay progress?   That is possible, but with other appointments also delayed, it is impossible to tell for sure what the reason was in my case.

There are, of course, cases where appointments move very quickly.  One former NRC Commissioner told me his appointment--which was years ago--had no delays at all.  A number of the nominations made by the new Administration in recent weeks have also moved quickly, even in some cases where they are controversial.  I have even wondered how all the paperwork and other vetting that I went through could possibly be taking place for some of these nominations.

I should also emphasize that, in some ways, I am luckier than other nominees who get caught in this process.

I had spent most of my career in the Federal government in positions requiring a security clearance, so I'd been through similar reviews before.  I was already keeping the kinds of records that might be difficult for others to assemble, like my past foreign travel.  This review was more detailed than past security clearances, but I had most of the basic information.  

I live in the Washington area.  I did not have to start preparing to relocate quickly in anticipation of suddenly being confirmed.

While I did turn down some consulting assignments, they were fairly minor.  I am aware of other nominees who find that they are unable to conduct their business at all while they are under consideration.

I felt it was useful to share this story because I think most people do not fully understand the Presidential appointment process.  Since I work in Washington and have worked with a number of Presidential appointees, I thought I knew more than most about the process, but I still encountered a number of surprises along the way--the number of people I dealt with, the amount of paperwork, the number of colleagues and acquaintances who were interviewed, the surprise findings about some minor amounts of stock, the restrictions on my personal activities, both during the process and if confirmed, the long-term ramifications for an individual when opportunities arise during this period, and the details of what happens to pending nominations during the final month of an Administration.

This is not intended to discourage people from accepting invitations to be nominated in the future.  Some nominations, as I have said, do move more quickly.  It is an honor to be nominated by the President for any position, and I, for one, felt it was my duty accept, and, if confirmed, to serve.  I would probably agree to be nominated again, if asked, and I would encourage others to accept such offers as well.  However, anyone starting this process should be fully aware that it can be a long and tortuous road, even for positions that are not in the limelight and for individuals who believe that no controversy surrounds their nomination, and it can have impacts on one's investments and activities.



  1. Paraphrasing something I've seen attributed to Max Weber: A bureaucracy once it is established turns from its original purpose and instead exists to serve itself.

  2. Very disturbing, but thans for sharing

  3. I have had a number of comments on LinkedIn that I thought were worthwhile to post on this page. Since I have not verified the willingness of the commenters to have their names used in this forum, I am posting these without individual attribution:

    Comment 1:

    It sounds like a lot of hullabaloo for a small chance to serve. Too bad politics have gotten so convoluted.

    Comment 2:

    Sorry to hear this story. Gail is highly respected nuclear executive with very successful career in nuclear. Nuclear industry needs very experienced and knowledgeable executive.

    Comment 3:

    It should have been a more direct path. And I think I am not a fan of Board members staying on after they are expired until they are replaced. We, as a government, should be able to do this more efficiently

    Comment 4:

    Thanks for posting, great insights!

    Comment 5:

    As someone working for the NEA, I will try to keep records of ALL foreign travel, although I will not be waiting for an email requesting that I might consider a Presidential nomination.

    The bottom line is to document ALL activities while working outside the US.

    Comment 6:

    A great write-up on the process, and recommended reading for all prospective nominees. Sorry you got caught up in the morass. Unfortunately, this can be a common outcome. I think this may be more common at institutions where members stay on until replaced. It helps to have a forcing function such as an Agency losing quorum to motivate action on the nomination. Although, even then I have seen nominations die on the vine for no particular reason.

    1. I have posted a follow-up blog to elaborate on the comments #3 and 6 above, regarding the effect of having board members stay beyond the expiration of their terms: