Trump Agenda Hurt by Slow Pace of Appointments
Although he complains about Senate slow-walking, president has left hundreds of posts unfilled; allies say it hurts agenda
President Donald Trump frequently complains about obstructionist Senate Democrats “slow-walking” his nominees for various government jobs, but he ignores a major impediment preventing a fully staffed government — his administration’s own failure to make appointments.
At a campaign rally last month in West Virginia, Trump focused on nearly 400 nominations pending before the Senate.
“It is a disgrace. It’s a disgrace,” he said.
Statistics from the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit organization that tracks presidential appointments, suggest Trump has a point. The Senate so far has confirmed 471 out of 864 nominations for executive branch jobs. That 54.5 percent confirmation rate is far below those of the past four presidents.
The worst among the previous four was George W. Bush, who saw 71.7 percent of his nominees confirmed at this point in his presidency. He had a particularly high number of failed nominees; 132 either withdrew or had their nominations rejected by the Senate at the same point in time.
The Senate also has taken longer to act on Trump’s nominees. Despite Republican control of the upper chamber, it has taken an average of 89 days to confirm the president’s nominees. That is 10 days longer than President Barack Obama’s nominees and far more Bush, his father or Bill Clinton.
But Trump also has made fewer nominations. Data from the organization indicate that Trump’s 864 nominations compare to 924 made by Obama, 1,044 made by the younger Bush and 945 made by Clinton at the same point of their presidencies.
Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, told LifeZette that he believes the Trump administration got off to a slow start in part because the president approached the task of making political appointments the same way he ran his family business.
“You can’t actually run the federal government like a family business,” he said.
Stier said Trump also has been stymied by an unusually high rate of turnover. He noted that when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson left, for instance, it meant replacing not just him but other political appointees who left with him. Every time the president has to appoint someone else to a previously filled position, it adds to the backlog, Stier said.
Allies Say Lag Hurts Trump Agenda
To Trump’s allies, the slow pace of making appointments to political positions represents an enormous wasted opportunity to steer the federal bureaucracy in a more conservative direction.
“I don’s know if there is a specific reason why,” said David Bozell, president of the conservative group ForAmerica. “Every other administration has figured out how to do this, except for his … Lagging in confirmations. Lagging in nominations. They don’t seem to be putting a lot of pressure on the Senate.”
A Republican who served on Trump’s transition team, who talked to LifeZette on condition of anonymity so he could speak freely, said the initial effort to identify suitable political appointees was disorganized.
“We got a slow start out the gate because Chris Christie didn’t have his crap together,” he said, referring to the former New Jersey governor, who initially headed the transition team.
The official said failure to keep pace on appointments probably has been the Trump administration’s biggest mistake.
“Devastating impact,” he said. “A career bureaucrat in some of these agencies … in many agencies where vacancies exist, are actually working against the president’s agenda,” he said.
“If the administration was truly interested in streamlining, it wouldn’t be complaining about the slowness.”
Trump has sent mixed messages about the vacancies. Although he complained during the West Virginia rally about delaying tactics employed by Senate Democrats, he has on occasion claimed that leaving spots unfilled was a strategy for running a leaner government.
“If the administration was truly interested in streamlining, it wouldn’t be complaining about the slowness,” countered Stier, of the Partnership for Public Service.
Bureaucrats in Charge
Stier said there are a few instances where consolidation makes sense for positions with similar or overlapping duties. But that does not describe most of the unfilled spots. And he added that the best way to shrink unneeded positions is to ask Congress to eliminate them.
“When you don’t fill them, the job doesn’t actually go away.”
Stier noted that civil service employees perform the duties of supervisors whenever Trump has not installed hand-picked political appointees.
“When you don’t fill them, the job doesn’t actually go away,” he said.
A review of Partnership for Public Service data shows that some agencies are much better off than others. The office of the U.S. Trade Representative, for instance, is 100 percent staffed. But only 34 percent of the 29 political positions at the Department of Justice (DOJ) are in place.
At the Department of State, 88 nominees have been confirmed, with another 62 awaiting Senate action. The leaves 45 positions with no nominee.
Stier said some of the vacancies are in highly sensitive positions. For instance, the State Department has no permanent assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs at a time that the United States has been trying to negotiate an end to North Korea’s nuclear program and confront a rising China. Career diplomat Susan Thornton filled that post on an acting basis beginning in March 2017, but she retired at the end of this July.
“In certain spots, it’s proving detrimental,” Stier said.
Part of the problem, Stier said, is an unmanageably high number of political appointees in the federal government. In addition to the 1,200 or so requiring Senate confirmation, there are another roughly 3,000 who do not need Senate approval.
“There just isn’t any other democracy that has this number of political appointees and the incredible obstacles of having to navigate Senate confirmation,” he said. “No administration is going to get its team on the field on day one … Every administration has dealt with this. This administration has just done it worse than anyone else.”