PSQ prides itself on publishing scholarship created by the best and brightest in their respective fields. To highlight some of these exciting contributors and provide an in-depth look at the broader work our authors do, we bring you our Featured Author interview series.
Our September 2015 featured author is Gary E. Hollibaugh, Jr., an assistant professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame. He specializes in American political institutions with an emphasis on the relationship between the executive and legislative branches, as well as the importance of elite personality within institutions.
Q: What initially sparked your interest in executive appointments?
A: I actually became interested in executive appointments before I enrolled in graduate school. I was working for a labor attorney in San Diego the year the of the U.S. Attorneys dismissal controversy. It was particularly notable because Carol Lam, the U.S.A. for the Southern District of California (which is based in San Diego), was one of those dismissed. By all accounts of those in the local legal community, she was an effective attorney—having prosecuted former Representative Duke Cunningham—and was respected not only by those who worked with her, but also by those who brought suit against federal agencies (which we often did on behalf of our clients).
However, after the news broke that she was dismissed because she wasn’t prosecuting the types of immigration cases the Bush administration wanted her to, I realized the importance of policy fealty and loyalty in the appointments process, even sometimes at the cost of administrative competence. This realization led me to read the foundational works in this area for the first time, and I’ve been interested since.
Q: What are the key questions in the study of the president and executive appointments?
A: Studies of the appointments process (including my work to date) have typically focused on the political contexts at the time nominations are sent to the Senate/recess appointments are made/nominations are confirmed by the Senate. However, focusing on the part of the process beginning with a formal nomination ignores the internal searching and vetting that occurs within the executive branch before public nominations are made. How does incorporating this important part of the appointments process affect our understanding of the process as a whole? I have done some work on this, but much more needs to be done. Of course, given the nature of the problem, data will be an issue.
Another potential line of inquiry focuses on the “person” side of “personnel.” Fundamentally, appointees act in concert with other (appointed and nonappointed) officials when carrying out the necessary tasks to fulfill the mission of their agency/board/commission/etc. Yet, when we examine the traits that lead to successful confirmations and agency performance, we typically ignore the possibility that the personality traits of appointees and other personnel matter, even though these concerns are quite common in private sector hiring. These concerns are potentially important because not only do they affect how individuals interact with one another—whether in informal teams or in a stricter bureaucratic hierarchy—but also because a significant body of personality psychology research has provided strong evidence that personality traits have strong roles to play in determining individuals’ levels of risk aversion and time preferences (among other factors), which should be of major concern when designing and implementing policy (and also for determining the optimal level of delegation). To this effect, two colleagues (Adam J. Ramey of New York University, Abu Dhabi and Jonathan D. Klingler of the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse) and I are currently working on a book project and several related articles that illustrate the importance of personality within Congress. My goal is to apply the tools and theories we develop therein to better understand the same concerns within the executive branch in general, and the appointments process in particular.
Q: What kind of response do you hope your work elicits from your readers? Ideally, what kind of critical thought do you hope your article inspires?
A: I hope my research inspires others to not only think about the appointments process in general, but to also perhaps think about appointments in contexts different than the typical domestic policy-oriented executive branch/judiciary positions we see examined in so much published work. Ambassadorial appointments are qualitatively different than most other kinds of appointments, in large part because the focus is on global issues of international importance, as opposed to (arguably) narrower domestic concerns. Thankfully, other scholars have also begun to address this; for example, Waterman, Bretting, and Stewart (2015) had a nice piece come out in this year’s June issue of Social Science Quarterly. That said, more work could be done on this end. Another possibility lies in the examination of military appointments; examining these will allow us to determine whether our theories of the appointments process are applicable to appointments generally, or more specifically applicable to only policy-relevant positions.