Unqualified Ambassadors

by Ryan M. Scoville

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Abstract

In making appointments to the office of ambassador, U.S. presidents often select political supporters from outside the ranks of the State Department’s professional diplomatic corps. This practice is aberrational among advanced democracies and a source of recurrent controversy in the United States, and yet its merits and significance are substantially opaque: How do political appointees compare with career diplomats in terms of credentials? Are they less effective in office? Do they serve in some countries more than others? Have any patterns evolved over time? Commentators might assume answers to these questions, but actual evidence has been in short supply. In this context, it is difficult for the public to evaluate official practice and hold accountable those who wield power under the Appointments Clause.

This Article helps to correct for the current state of affairs. Using a novel dataset based on a trove of previously unavailable documents that I obtained from the State Department through requests and litigation under the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”), the Article systematically reveals the professional qualifications and campaign contributions of over 1900 ambassadorial nominees spanning the Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama administrations, along with the first two years of Donald Trump. In doing so, the Article substantially enhances the transparency of the appointments process and exposes conditions of concern: not only are political appointees on average much less qualified than their career counterparts under a variety of congressionally approved measures, but also the gap has grown along with the commonality and size of their campaign contributions to nominating presidents. These conditions raise the possibility that campaign contributions are generating an increasingly deleterious effect on the quality of U.S. diplomatic representation abroad. The Article concludes by identifying and defending the constitutional merits of plausible legal reforms, including Senate rule amendments and statutory measures to regulate qualifications and enhance transparency.

Unqualified Ambassadors

by Ryan M. Scoville

Click here for a PDF file of this article

Abstract

In making appointments to the office of ambassador, U.S. presidents often select political supporters from outside the ranks of the State Department’s professional diplomatic corps. This practice is aberrational among advanced democracies and a source of recurrent controversy in the United States, and yet its merits and significance are substantially opaque: How do political appointees compare with career diplomats in terms of credentials? Are they less effective in office? Do they serve in some countries more than others? Have any patterns evolved over time? Commentators might assume answers to these questions, but actual evidence has been in short supply. In this context, it is difficult for the public to evaluate official practice and hold accountable those who wield power under the Appointments Clause.

This Article helps to correct for the current state of affairs. Using a novel dataset based on a trove of previously unavailable documents that I obtained from the State Department through requests and litigation under the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”), the Article systematically reveals the professional qualifications and campaign contributions of over 1900 ambassadorial nominees spanning the Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama administrations, along with the first two years of Donald Trump. In doing so, the Article substantially enhances the transparency of the appointments process and exposes conditions of concern: not only are political appointees on average much less qualified than their career counterparts under a variety of congressionally approved measures, but also the gap has grown along with the commonality and size of their campaign contributions to nominating presidents. These conditions raise the possibility that campaign contributions are generating an increasingly deleterious effect on the quality of U.S. diplomatic representation abroad. The Article concludes by identifying and defending the constitutional merits of plausible legal reforms, including Senate rule amendments and statutory measures to regulate qualifications and enhance transparency.