03/29/2010 02:41 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Recess Appointees and Time to Confirmation

President Obama made 15 recess appointments over the weekend, the first of his presidency. The White House announced the appointments and made their case based on the long wait for Senate action in a press release here. The recess appointments have waited an "average of 214 days" according to the release (the mean in the data I analyzed is 213.6 with a median of 194 days.) The nominations and confirmations data I used is available at the White House website here. I've excluded 9 appointees who are holdovers from the Bush administration who do not require confirmation. The White House release says 217 nominees are pending though in these data I find only 207 pending, including the 15 recess appointees.

The figure above puts the delays in perspective by also showing the 550 confirmed appointees and all the wait times until final action. (At the moment, no nominee has been rejected, so the duration is days until confirmation vote or March 27 (the date of the recess appointments).

Among the confirmed nominees, the median wait time was 56 days, with 75% confirmed in 91 days and 90% confirmed in 129 days. In contrast, for the 15 recess appointees, the minimum wait was 144 days, with a median of 194 days, and a third have waited more than 249 days for a confirmation decision.

The key take-away is that 73% of nominees have been confirmed, while 27% are pending. Some of those pending are recent nominees, with 34% waiting less than the 56 day median for confirmed nominees. But there is also a considerable right tail to the distribution, with many pending nominees having waited well beyond the normal range for confirmed appointees. And the recess appointments are mostly from the right tail of the unconfirmed.

The top half of the figure shows the distribution of wait times for the confirmed and unconfirmed nominees. The red distribution for those waiting for confirmation has a much heavier right tail than the blue line for confirmed cases. The red dots show the 15 recess appointees, which are visibly to the right of the distribution of times. The lower half of the figure shows the individual wait times for the recess appointees by name and agency.

Finally, we can compare the wait times for confirmed, pending (excluding recess) and recess appointees.

The recess appointees are mostly outliers compared to those confirmed and have all waited longer than more than three-quarters of other pending nominees.

These data put the delays in confirmation in perspective. As the White House complains, the group of recess appointees have indeed waited considerably longer than is normal for eventual confirmations, and longer than a large majority of other pending appointments. But the White House also glosses over the relative speed of the 73% of nominees who have been confirmed, 90% of whom were confirmed in 129 days, or about 4 months, or less. The reason some nominees face long delays is political-- either due to the individual nominee's background or the agency to which they are nominated or holds placed by individual Senators. Those are normal political battles, and it is worth noting that the delay in decisions is not universal. That may be cold comfort to the 35 still-pending nominees who have been waiting for a vote for more than 150 days.

Addendum: University of Kansas political scientist Michael Lynch sent me and The Monkey Cage an email summarizing the results of his (and colleagues) analysis of recess appointments since 1987. The key finding is that length of delay alone is not the key determinant of who receives a recess appointment and who does not. Not too shockingly, presidents use recess appointments to further their political goals and especially so with regulatory commissions, such as NLRB and EEOC appointments among Obama's 15. The Monkey Cage has Lynch's summary of his research here. Of course, before going to a temporary recess appointment, nominees must normally have waited longer than those most easily confirmed, as my analysis above shows. Among those waiting, who gets a recess appointment and who does not certainly is a political and policy choice, as Lynch's research demonstrates. --Charles