The Broken Nominations Process

President’s Views


Much has been written about the unwieldy process the U.S. has for nominating, confirming, and attesting not only ambassadorial positions but Senior Foreign Service (SFS) promotions and tenure lists, as well.

And it is widely acknowledged that the dysfunction in the nomination and confirmation process has a big impact on morale for everyone in the Service, results in a loss of high-level talent, and, in leaving ambassadorships vacant for long periods, poses a risk to U.S. national security.

Peculiar among major industrialized democracies, the U.S. selects many appointees from outside the career Foreign Service. AFSA’s Ambassador Tracker reveals that the percentage of political appointees averages 30 to 40 percent, with a low of 26 percent under President Jimmy Carter to a high of 44 percent under President Donald Trump. Under President Joe Biden, we are at 40 percent.

While that won’t change anytime soon, it doesn’t mean nothing can be done to improve the process.

First, AFSA is working to ensure that the parts of the process that the State Department controls move ahead expeditiously—namely, vetting nominees and getting the full package to the Secretary and then to the White House. Currently, that can take up two months.

We appreciate the work that the Bureau of Global Talent Management’s Presidential Appointments Staff (GTM/PAS) does on vetting, including coordinating with other foreign affairs agencies to process their nominees. Those nominated have a responsibility, too, to provide all required information in a timely manner.

Once tenure boards, SFS promotion panels, and the D Committee (for chief of mission positions) make their selections, there should be no delay.

Yet today, when these lists reach the White House, it can take another two to three months for the names to be officially nominated and sent to the Senate for confirmation.

Setting time limits at the department stage might make sense. AFSA has discussed with GTM/PAS ways in which we can work together to accelerate the process and is pleased they have established contacts with the White House. AFSA is also seeking contacts at the White House to push the lists along.

Of course, the biggest delays usually take place at the Senate. Sometimes individual senators hold up confirmations for reasons having nothing to do with the nominees. Some insist on doing their own vetting.

Sometimes entire promotion lists languish because of an alleged issue with just one or two names, even though in nearly every instance the issues were fully addressed by the department.

After confirmation, these lists are sent back to the White House for attestation, which can take another month or two.

In all, it is an extended grueling process for ambassadorial nominees, but those recommended for promotion and tenure suffer as well. The time between being notified of your promotion into or within the Senior Foreign Service and being nominated, confirmed, and attested has grown longer and longer. It is now not uncommon to wait nearly a year to actually get promoted. That happened to me.

Everyone agrees that the system is broken—and the continuing sharp partisan divide in our country makes it worse. But this much is clear: Those at the highest levels of the State Department need to involve themselves even more to get nominees and promotees across the finish line.

If we don’t succeed in making needed changes, we will continue to lose talent. We hear stories about highly qualified career candidates for ambassador who do not even want to start the process, given how long it takes, including the very real potential of having to be renominated and start all over again because of partisan gridlock.

Most important, this puts our national security at risk. Countries feel slighted when there is no U.S. ambassador in their capitals—sometimes for years on end. AFSA will continue to advocate for a more efficient and fairer process at all points along the way.

If you have a story that illustrates these problems or have any comments, please contact me at or We want to hear from you.

Tom Yazdgerdi is the president of the American Foreign Service Association.


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