Senate Confirmation for 1,200 Jobs Is Holding Biden Back

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Within hours of his inauguration, President Joe Biden had staffed around 1,100 key federal appointments, an unprecedented  number that speaks to the excellent work of his personnel team during a difficult transition.

Yet this accomplishment was only possible because the roles did not require Senate confirmation. Of the 1,200 or so jobs that do, the president by his 100th day in office had nominated a record 220 individuals, of whom the Senate has confirmed just 44, or less than 4% of the total.

At times of crisis, the chief executive needs his team around him. Americans know the stakes: In 2003, the 9/11 Commission concluded that unfilled positions at national security agencies may have contributed to their failure to prevent the attacks or mount a speedier response.

Today, amid a deadly pandemic, a racial justice crisis, a climate emergency and innumerable threats from extremists and authoritarians overseas, the vacancies include deputy secretaries at the Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services; undersecretaries at State and Defense; and the assistant attorney general for civil rights.

This is no anomaly; every recent president has faced comparable bottlenecks. And the problem is getting worse: It took more than twice as long on average to confirm President Donald Trump’s nominees as it did for President Ronald Reagan’s. Divided government is part of the problem, but not all of it; just as with Trump, today one party controls the Senate and White House.

Simply put, the Senate is a small pipe down which we are trying to force too much material. Predictably, it is now clogged. Small reforms here and there could help, for example by streamlining the paperwork required of nominees, expediting background investigations, or providing for more hearings in advance of the inauguration. But fundamentally, should all 1,200 positions really need Senate confirmation?

America should return to first principles. The Constitution gives the Senate the duty to “advise and consent” on federal appointments, in order to ensure adequate oversight of the executive branch. In a world of limited legislative resources, the best way to achieve that is not to attempt to control as many presidential appointments as possible, but to focus on a relatively small number of key leadership and policymaking posts.

In 2012, Congress did legislate to reduce Senate-confirmable positions, but only by 163, and new posts requiring a vote have been created since then. At the same time, Congress expedited the confirmation process for around 200 further roles. These reforms were welcome, but they are only a slice of the solution.

The exact numbers and titles will vary agency by agency, and ultimately it will be for Congress to decide, but there need to be far fewer jobs requiring Senate confirmation. Our turbulent moment shows just how vital it is for a presidential administration to have its top ranks in place.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Max Stier is the president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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