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Deborah Daniels: Too many key federal positions remain unfilled

May 11, 2018

Daniels
People disagree about why there are so many gaping holes in federal leadership, 15 months into the Trump presidency. Hard-core Democrats blame the president’s delay in sending nominations to the Senate for confirmation. Hard-core Trumpians counter that the glacial pace of appointments is caused by the Democratic Senate leadership’s inexcusable delays to the confirmation process.

They’re both right.

In 2016, candidate Trump appointed then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to head his transition effort. I was encouraged by the naming of an intelligent, no-nonsense governor like Christie, with experience in government and the political system, to organize a very complex process early in the game. Christie’s staff of 100 vigorously vetted potential candidates for hundreds of important positions. (Note: More than 1,200 federal positions require Senate confirmation.)

After the election, Christie recommended 100 candidates for top leadership roles and hundreds for supporting roles. They recommended staffing the Presidential Personnel Office (the office that vets and recommends candidates for presidential appointments) with 100 people to complete the job.

Then, inexplicably, the incoming president fired Christie, dismantled the entire effort, and re-started it, with incoming Vice President Mike Pence at the helm. Pence had a lot on his plate already; and coupled with an apparent request to begin from scratch, this likely slowed the nomination process from the outset.

Next, they understaffed the effort. A report on March 30 by The Washington Post [Behind the chaos: Office that vets Trump appointees plagued by inexperience] reported that the office is staffed by only 30 people, most with little to no experience in government or management. According to the article, they are undereducated and inexperienced, routinely engaging in happy hours in their offices replete with college-style drinking games. Those given such a sobering responsibility shouldn’t have the time or inclination for such foolishness.

Repeated turnover at the top has required additional nominations. Some, including Ronny Jackson, the recent short-lived nominee for the Veterans Administration, have appeared unqualified.

The numbers tell the story: As of March 30, The Post reported only 564 nominations sent to the Senate by President Trump, as compared to 732 by President Barack Obama at that point, 724 by President George W. Bush, and 711 by President Bill Clinton. No nominations have been sent for some critical positions, including many at the State Department.

But here’s the other side of the story: Democrats in the Senate are clearly slow-walking the confirmation process. In 2013, then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, invoked the “nuclear option,” eliminating the use of the filibuster for most nominations. But the process can still be delayed. And the Democrats are taking full advantage.

According to The Hill [Trump presses GOP to change Senate rules, March 18], Democrats have demanded cloture votes (the 60-vote majority required to end debate) for about 80 nominees in the first 14 months of the administration—five times the number occurring in the last four administrations at the same point, combined.

As a result, of the nominations sent to the Senate by the president, 31 percent—nearly one-third—remain unconfirmed. That compares to 25 percent for President Obama at this stage, 15 percent for President G.W. Bush, and 13 percent for President Clinton.

The Democrats are also taking advantage of Senate rules allowing 30 additional hours of debate after every cloture vote, even for noncontroversial nominees.

The country is suffering from inefficiency on the right and intransigence on the left. We need competency and statesmanship—and fast.•

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Daniels, a partner at Krieg DeVault LLP, is a former U.S. attorney, assistant U.S. attorney general, and president of the Sagamore Institute. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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