Democrats Are Resisting Trump's Nominations for a Reason

(Bloomberg) -- On Monday morning, Donald Trump complained about Democratic delays in the confirmation of his executive branch and judicial nominees. On Monday night, it appeared that his nomination of Ronny Jackson for Secretary of Veteran's Affairs was potentially falling apart. You know what? Given the track record of Trump's nominees, Democratic foot-dragging on Trump's selections seems absolutely appropriate. 

The first thing to remember is that Democrats have limited ability to do anything. Thanks to the changes during Barack Obama's presidency, it only takes a simple majority to confirm anyone Trump nominates. The delays, too, are limited. They can ask to push back committee consideration of a nominee, and it's customary but not required for committee chairs to give week-long delays when requested. And they can slow Senate floor consideration. For any individual nomination, that will only add a few days to the process. But Trump is correct that delays can add up: If each executive branch nominee takes several days instead of a few minutes, then the overall backlog can get pretty severe. In fact, if the minority party did try to maximize delays, it would take years to confirm everyone. Democrats, however, have not been maximizing delays; they've allowed some uncontroversial lower-level people through quickly, but have strung out others. 

So are Democratic delays the main problem in staffing the executive branch? There are a lot of ways to look at it. One is just the ratio of nominations and confirmations. By that score, the Senate is clearly moving slower. The Washington Post's statistics show that only about two-thirds of Trump's nominees so far have been confirmed, while Barack Obama was at nearly three-quarters at this point and before that the ratio was even higher. Time between nomination and confirmation is also higher.[note]

Yet, there's reason to think that Democrats, and perhaps the Senate overall, aren't the real problem. The Post and the Partnership for Public Service track nominations for the most important positions. Of those, 139 have been formally nominated but not confirmed. What's interesting is that only 53 of those 139 have been approved by committee and are ready for their final vote -- the stage at which Democratic delays can really matter. Even then, it's not clear how many of the 53 are logjam problems from general foot-dragging. For example, four nominees for the board of the Export-Import bank have been on the Senate executive calendar since December, but have been stalled because of opposition from Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey, not from Democrats.

Of the 86 nominations that haven't cleared committee, some are recent choices, but others have languished for some time. In those cases, it's likely they've stalled because of some problem with the nominee: Paperwork hasn't been finished, or some issue has been raised. It's unlikely that any of that has to do with the minority party, although some of it could be blamed on a bipartisan Senate consensus that has made confirmation too difficult. But it's more likely that the Trump administration just isn't doing its homework. 

After all, an extraordinary number of high profile Trump nominees have ended up in trouble. Two cabinet secretaries, Tom Price at Health and Human Services and David Shulkin at Veteran's Affairs, have left after scandals. The original labor secretary nominee, Andrew Puzder, didn't even get confirmed. And there are several more similar stories for those who, at least for the moment, still have jobs. The new troubles for Ronny Jackson fit right in -- as do reports that he wasn't properly vetted for the job.

Republicans have been all-too-willing to confirm nominees such as Price, Shulkin, Ryan Zinke, and Scott Pruitt. In the past, they wouldn’t have made it through the vetting process before even being nominated. Inept Trump Administration procedures, and not partisan hostage-taking, is the context for what Democrats have been up to.

Democrats can't do much. What they can do, however, is to drag their feet, in hopes that important information surfaces before the final confirmation vote. That's not obstruction. That's just doing their job.

To contact the author of this story: Jonathan Bernstein at

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.