Democrats Frustrated By Vacancies Across Government

8 mins read

(The Hill) Ten months after President Biden took office, many key positions across the government lack a permanent occupant.

The White House has spent months battling Republican blockades on Biden’s nominees for various positions. Several of them are candidates for critical ambassadorships that have been held up by GOP senators.

Biden also has been slow to select nominees for some key positions, while others have failed to gain enough support in the 50-50 Senate, where Democrats only have the majority because of Vice President Harris.

The result is an administration that has witnessed a slower confirmation rate than its three predecessors, leaving White House officials and Senate Democrats increasingly frustrated. While many positions are filled with officials serving in an acting capacity, experts say that permanent leadership across government is important to keep up morale and allow for long-term planning.

“The end result of all of this is, at a moment when we need so much from our government, we have a government that is not led with permanent officials in many instances, and that’s a big problem,” said Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service.

Kathryn Tenpas, an expert in executive confirmations at the Brookings Institution, said that Biden is lagging behind former Presidents Trump, Obama and George W. Bush when it comes to the number of confirmed nominees in the first 300 days of his presidency “by extremely significant points.”

Of the 15 major departments, 140 of Biden’s nominees have been confirmed, according to her research, while Trump had 158, Obama had 274, and Bush had 326 at the same point. There are 1,200 Senate-confirmed positions across the executive branch, which includes bodies like the Environmental Protection Agency that Tenpas does not track.

Confirmations are slow at the departments of State, Commerce, Homeland Security, Defense, Transportation and Treasury when comparing the Biden administration to its predecessors, she said. While the Senate has been slow to process nominations for executive departments, it has moved quicker to confirm judicial nominees than it did under Trump.

“By far, the worst performance is at the State Department,” Tenpas said.

Republican senators, including Ted Cruz (Texas), have slow-walked dozens of State Department nominees, including those to ambassadorships and other senior-level posts, angering the White House.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to Africa this past week at a time when no ambassadors to African countries had been confirmed. Cruz’s decision to stall the nominations is part of an effort to push the administration to impose mandatory sanctions on a Russia gas pipeline.

“I think most people recognize we should have ambassadors serving in posts around the world,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday. “It is frustrating, it is unprecedented, and it does certainly hurt our national security.”

Instead of being able to quickly confirm these nominees by unanimous consent, the Senate must use up valuable floor time. Schumer has filed cloture on 119 nominations under the Biden administration, almost double the times cloture was filed on Trump nominees during the same period, according to statistics provided by Schumer’s office.

Schumer has criticized Republicans for “unprecedented obstruction” of Biden’s nominees and warned in a recent Nov. 14 Dear Colleague letter that he could keep the chamber in session longer to push through the nominees.

“President Biden deserves his full team to execute our goals at home and abroad,” Schumer wrote. “We will do what we need to do to get them confirmed, even if it means voting at inconvenient times.”

Stier argued that process needs to be reformed so that there are less positions subject to confirmation and noncontroversial nominees can move more quickly.

“It’s no question that the time to confirm has doubled since the Reagan administration, that the pace has consistently slowed down among modern presidents, but at the end of the day it’s always been slow,” Stier said.

Compounding the challenge, under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, officials who have been serving in an acting capacity in positions for which there is no nominee could only serve in those roles until this past Tuesday.

The law, passed in 1998 during the Clinton years, was designed to incentivize administrations to nominate officials for open positions within 210 days over the course of an administration or 300 days into a new administration.

While Biden has nominated officials to serve in hundreds of positions, there are over 160 positions where he hasn’t named a nominee, according to a tracker from The Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service.

The impact on government operations of the Vacancies Act deadline is not entirely clear. In some cases, Stier said, administrations have played “verbal gymnastics” to rename people’s positions but allow them to essentially keep doing the job.

“Each agency has gone position by position to ensure that wherever we don’t have Senate-confirmed leadership, we have appointed designated senior leaders who are prepared to perform the functions until we nominate and confirm senior officials,” White House deputy press secretary Chris Meagher said last week.

The Vacancies Reform Act does not apply to the Office of Management and Budget, where Shalanda Young has served as acting director since March without Biden naming a new nominee. Young is on maternity leave after giving birth to her daughter and Jason Miller, deputy director for management, has taken over temporarily.

“We are confident where we are and we’re getting a lot of stuff done,” Miller told reporters on a recent call when asked for an update on an OMB nomination.

Biden waited until almost the latest point to name a nominee to lead the Food and Drug Administration. His choice, Robert Califf, is expected to face a someone difficult process given opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and potentially other Democrats.

The Senate is facing a busy legislative sprint to the end of the year dominated by debate over Biden’s sweeping climate and social policy package after it passed the House.

Tenpas predicted there would be sustained pressure on the Senate to work through nominations going into next year, given the possibility the administration could start seeing turnover next year.

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