It is new appointee time in the administration. Very few presidential appointees serve out even one administration, much less two, as is possible now with President Obama’s reelection. For example, the normal life of a political Deputy Assistant Secretary is only about 16-18 months.
What should you do if you are asked to consider serving in a political position in the administration? The first rule is: Do not be a bystander in your own nomination and confirmation process. More than just a presidential appointment is at stake; so are your reputation, your career, and your ability to perform the position should you actually be appointed. Have your own counsel. Remember, every person in the nomination and confirmation process except you and the person you retain have someone else’s interests in mind. As an old Washington hand once said to me, “Unless the other fellow succeeds only if you succeed, do not place your fate in his hands.”
The second rule is a corollary of the first. Do not change your current employment status until the day you take the oath of office in government. The reasons for this rule are time tested: First, it takes longer than you dream from “Would you consider . . .” to appointment. This is particularly the case if the position is one requiring Senate confirmation. But even without the Senate process, the investigation to ensure that have paid your taxes, your resume is correct, and you have nothing in your background that might make you unsuitable for appointment takes months, not weeks.
Second, you may not end up being appointed. A senator may want his or her person appointed for reasons completely unrelated to you. Politics may drive an appointment to another person. So, do not change your position, move, sell or buy a house, or otherwise rely upon being appointed until you have taken the oath of office.
The third rule is that the appointment process is more intrusive than you have ever thought possible. Unless you currently hold a security clearance – and, frankly, even if you do – you will find the appointment process to be intrusive, repetitive, and requiring the disclosure of way too much personal and financial information. Expect this information to become public. Your personal information may properly remain within the government unless the facts are just too good not to leak. But your financial information is automatically public – you will have to file an annual public financial disclosure form.
The fourth rule is not to start work at the agency or department until you are appointed. The process takes so long that it is always tempting to start as a consultant and “get to work.” If your position is the least visible and requires confirmation, this opens you to extensive committee questioning. These are questions you would rather not be asked and the administration would, generally speaking, not have you answer.
While there are other rules, the final major one is not to say anything about being under consideration and to avoid the press if at all possible. You are either the President’s or a Cabinet Secretary’s appointment. Do not forget this. It is for the President or the Secretary to announce his or her choice and to characterize it in terms of the administration’s goals and objectives. If you have to say something, clear it with the White House or the Secretary’s staff first and then stick to the script, keeping in mind of course, rule number one.
Ed Wilson served at the White House and Treasury during the Reagan Administration and has screened and counseled nominees through the nomination and confirmation process as both a government official and private attorney.