President Joe Biden is being outpaced by his predecessors when it comes to the Senate confirming his nominees as Republicans protest his handling of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project and the Afghanistan troop withdrawal.
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Biden sending roughly 640 nominations to the Senate by his first December in office is on par with his prior presidents, bar former President Donald Trump, who had named 100 fewer appointees by this point in his term, according to Max Stier, the CEO of the Partnership for Public Service Partnership, which houses the Center for Presidential Transition.
Yet Biden's approximately 355 Senate confirmations put him behind former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush. Bush, for instance, had upward of 100 more appointees approved by now. And Biden has to nominate about 160 people to the 800 posts the Center for Presidential Transition tracks of the 1,200 total roles the Senate governs.
For Stier, the Senate is the "biggest part of the problem," though it does not bear sole responsibility for Biden's confirmation delays. The system has "really never worked well," and "it's working even less well today than ever before," Stier said of the number of appointees needed to be nominated.
"There isn't anything like this in any other democracy in the world. And it is just institutionally really impossible for a president to get their team in place in real time," he told the Washington Examiner. "It's getting worse because the world is moving faster and getting more scary. And the requirements that are on the Senate are getting harder and harder."
Partisanship has exacerbated the backlog since the Senate is its most expeditious when lawmakers can unanimously agree, Stier said.
"It's not just partisanship. It's actually a single senator [who] can throw sand in the gears of consequence," he said. "One thing that is coming up very soon is the end of this session. And unless there's unanimous consent, the current nominations will be sent back to the president, and there'll be a requirement that they be renominated."
Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri are among those who submitted "holds" on Biden State Department, Pentagon, and Treasury nominees under their respective committees' jurisdictions before full floor votes. Cruz offered Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer his endorsements in exchange for the chamber considering additional sanctions over the Germany-Russia Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. Hawley issued holds to underscore Biden's deadly withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
Senate confirmation holds allow minority senators to exert influence on the majority party's legislative agenda, providing them with the leverage to advance their own priorities, according to political commentator Karen Hult.
"A lot of people would say that in fact, to some extent, what we're seeing now is much less advise and consent on the particular nominee and the policies of the administration and more an effort to draw attention to a policy goal or set of policy values of individual senators," she said. "The power of individual senators has always been held as sacrosanct. And that's an example of that right now."
The ramifications of rampant appointee vacancies span from superficial dealings with countries without Senate-confirmed U.S. ambassadors to low department morale, Hult said.
"The Defense Department has only 37% of the positions that are subject to Senate confirmation confirmed; in Treasury, it's 28%; in Commerce, it's 27%. And even excluding ambassadors at State, it's 35%," the Virginia Tech political science professor said, referring to mid-December data. "That kind of focusing on key agencies in the U.S. government may really send signals to a range of folks inside the executive branch, but also around the country and around the world, about the capacity of those departments to be able to perform their jobs."
The White House downplayed the repercussions of the Senate's historically slow confirmation of Biden's ambassador nominees when pressed this month, imploring Republicans to help ease the process.
"President Biden is quickly working to restore America's position on the world stage, and he's moved swiftly to nominate well-qualified ambassadors, who have earned Republican and Democratic support," spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said. "Quickly confirm these national security nominees, so they can advocate for the interests of the American people around the world."
A number of Senate confirmation reforms have been proposed. Stier floated reducing how many nominees the Senate has to debate, citing the 9/11 Commission Report. The commission found the country's response to the terrorist attacks was hampered by having half of Bush's top national security team unapproved.
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"The 9-11 Commission recommended that future administrations on day one have their core national security team nominated and that the Senate respond to that within 30 days, an up and down vote in 30 days," Stier said. "Our country adopted almost all the recommendations from the 9-11 Commission Report except for the ones that apply to Congress, like that one."