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There is an old saying in Washington that “personnel is policy.” But what happens to policy if there are no personnel?
Unfortunately, we are in the middle of finding out; and the answer is grim.
Every president nominates approximately 1,200 senior officials, who, after being confirmed by the Senate, manage and set policy in the various federal agencies and independent commissions.
Yet today, six months after President Trump took office, the majority of those positions still either sit vacant or are held by temporary officials in an acting capacity. As a result, agencies lack critical leadership and in the case of independent agencies, the quorum necessary to conduct important business.
This has real world impacts: Workers are sidelined as projects await permits and approvals from agencies that lack the quorum necessary to issue them. Businesses are left waiting for important administrative decisions that simply cannot be made in the absence of Senate-confirmed officials.
Why is this happening? While it is true that the White House got off to a slow start in identifying nominees and the process of conducting background checks on nominees is slowing down the process once nominees are identified, increasingly the hold-up is in the U.S. Senate.
Over 80 nominees have been approved by the committee of jurisdiction and now await consideration by the full Senate. Some nominees have been waiting over two months. Why? Because some in the Senate are forcing most nominees to go through a time-consuming process designed to slow down the overall confirmation process.
Specifically, rather than confirming non-controversial nominees by voice vote – as the Senate did in prior administrations – the Senate minority is forcing most confirmations to go through what is called the cloture process, a process that takes several days to complete per nominee.
Through August 2, of President Trump’s 283 executive and judicial nominations, only 67 have been confirmed. Of those 67, only 13 (19%) were confirmed by voice vote or unanimous consent, while 37 (55%) were confirmed only after going through the cloture process. By way of comparison, at the same point in President Obama’s first term, the Senate had confirmed 206 nominees, 182 (88%) by voice vote or unanimous consent. Only eight (4%) of President Obama’s nominees were forced to go through the cloture process.
In a letter sent to Senate leaders, a number of business associations noted the impact this is having:
The breakdown of the confirmation process results in a breakdown in the efficient and effective functioning of government and ultimately to a drag on the economy.
The letter notes that,
By one estimate, at the current rate, it will take 11 years to confirm all of the president’s nominees to executive branch positions.
This is unacceptable. We urge the Senate to resume normal order and the prior practices that help government function. By confirming qualified nominees expeditiously, we can ensure a process that helps get America on track to pass the comprehensive reforms we need.