U.S. President Donald Trump speaks on the phone with Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, during the first official phone talks in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. (Photographer: Pete Marovich/Pool via Bloomberg)

Trump Needs to Get Serious About Staffing Up

(Bloomberg View) -- Donald Trump's slow start at filling the hundreds of vacancies in the executive branch are starting to have real effects, from uncertainty in the economy to insufficient capacity to run U.S. foreign and national security policy.

The Wall Street Journal's Brent Kimball documents the various regulatory agencies unable to act because they don't have a quorum, or other cases where vacancies will eventually give Republicans a majority but vacancies allow Democrats to retain their old majorities.  Other departments and agencies are incapable of making policy because they haven't fully staffed up -- Treasury still has only the Secretary confirmed, although at least Trump has finally made a series of nominations for some of the other positions. Businesses that depend on a stable regulatory environment or need specific decisions are left in limbo, for who knows how long. The situation in foreign policy is similarly dire, as McClatchy's Vera Bergengruen reports

And weeks after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, he hasn't managed to name a replacement.

What could possibly explain such a long wait to fill the Trump administration's ranks? The president has found a scapegoat:

Donald J. Trump @realDonaldTrump
.@foxandfriends Dems are taking forever to approve my people, including Ambassadors. They are nothing but OBSTRUCTIONISTS! Want approvals.
Twitter: Donald J. Trump on Twitter

No surprise, but Trump is offering a diagnosis of the problem that is plain wrong. While Democrats have indeed been slow-walking executive branch nominations, almost all of the fault for the vacancies lies with Trump, not the Senate.

Let's look at the facts on ambassadors (using data from the great Washington Post/Partnership for Public Service compilation of top executive branch jobs needing Senate confirmation):

  • Trump has only named a grand total of 12 ambassadors to foreign nations. That means he hasn't picked anyone yet for dozens of other posts.
  • Of those 12, only 9 have been formally submitted to the Senate.
  • Of those 9, 4 were confirmed.
  • 3 of the remaining 5 were nominated in May (one on May 16, and two on May 25). 

That leaves only 2 nominations where Democratic obstruction is even possible. William Francis Hagerty IV (Japan) was formally nominated back on March 27, but no hearing on his was held until May 18. There's no media reporting about why it took so long, but there's no reason to believe that Democrats were responsible -- the Republican majority schedules hearings, not the minority party. Scott Brown's nomination (New Zealand and Samoa) was sent to the Senate on April 25, and the Senate Foreign Relations committee voted him out on May 25. 

Are Democrats slow-walking executive branch nominations? Absolutely. But there's not much they can really do. They can usually push back committee votes by a week. They can use all the potential time they are entitled to when nominations reach the Senate floor.  And by stretching each nomination out, they can and have created a bit of a backlog. But all told, they can at best add 2 or 3 weeks to the process. 

That's not nothing, although such delays were normal when Barack Obama was president (and, indeed, the Republican majority in 2015-2016 simply refused to consider many of his executive branch nominations). Through May 20, Trump's nominations were averaging 9 days longer than Obama's to reach confirmation -- a real delay, to be sure, but not exactly a massive one.

But such delays mainly affect nominations once they reach the Senate floor, and right now there are all of 10 executive branch nominations ready for full Senate action -- and only one of those has been sitting there from before May 23 (and the Senate has been in recess since May 26). 

In other words, of the hundreds of current vacancies, Democratic slow-walking has at best delayed only a handful of nominations, and even those have only been delayed briefly. 

The real problem is that the administration has been slow to act. In some cases that may be because Trump is suspicious Republicans who opposed him during the election will be disloyal now; in others, the problem may be that the president and the White House staff are too easily distracted, or just too dysfunctional, to get basic governing tasks accomplished. And as the president's reputation suffers, his legal jeopardy becomes more serious, and his popularity falters it may also be harder and harder to find qualified people who want to have anything to do with Donald Trump. 

To be fair, no president has ever filled all of these slots this early in his presidency. But then again, Trump failed to take advantage of new transition assistance. Overall it's just a terrible performance, and one the nation is already beginning to suffer from in lots of large and small ways. 

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

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

  1. Note that some of these include cases where the Republican (incomplete, but real) shutdown on nominations during the last two years of the Obama administration created those vacancies in the first place. 

  2. They can force recorded votes on the Senate floor, and they can demand a cloture vote and then use all of their available post-cloture time.

To contact the author of this story: Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

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