Impeachment trial threatens Biden’s already-delayed Cabinet picks amid mounting challenges

Compared to his six immediate predecessors, Biden’s transition is far behind schedule, and the Senate proceeding could push it back even further

The forthcoming Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, set to begin as early as this week, threatens to delay hearings for President-elect Joe Biden’s top political appointees, further upsetting a transition already beset by extraordinary delays and facing generational challenges.

Even the Trump administration, which took longer than usual to get its Cabinet in place, had its defense and homeland security secretaries confirmed on Inauguration Day. And President Trump’s five immediate predecessors had at least five Cabinet heads in place within a week of inauguration.

Delayed confirmation hearings could force the incoming administration to confront a raging pandemic without a health secretary, a ravaged economy without a treasury secretary, a massive Russian cyber intrusion without secretaries to helm the Pentagon or State Department, and a wave of emboldened white nationalism without an attorney general or homeland security secretary.

“It’s the equivalent of starting your football game with the center and quarterback and no one else on your team on the field,” said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. “An impeachment proceeding takes what is already an enormously hard process and multiplies the difficulty by 10.”

Shortly after the House voted Wednesday to impeach Trump, Biden expressed a desire for the Senate to consider the impeachment without neglecting other matters. The Senate can begin the proceeding only after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) transmits the article of impeachment across the Capitol, an action she could delay to make room for early legislation and confirmations.

Biden’s nominees are already well behind schedule, according to data compiled by James King, a professor of political science at the University of Wyoming. During previous transitions, Senate committees held hearings for most principal Cabinet nominees before Inauguration Day, clearing the way for the full Senate to vote on nominees shortly after the president was sworn in.

“By historical standards, the fact that we’ve not had confirmation hearings yet for Biden’s nominees is already fairly delayed,” said Lauren C. Bell, a political science professor at Randolph-Macon College who studies Senate confirmations. “That’s going to make it challenging if the Senate takes up impeachment.”

After the 2000 election, when a disputed result delayed the transition, 12 of George W. Bush’s 14 principal Cabinet nominees had received committee hearings by Inauguration Day. Only four of Biden’s picks are likely to have reached that point by Wednesday.

But delays with lower-level appointees undermined the Bush administration’s preparedness, according to the 9/11 Commission Report. The “loss of time hampered the new administration in identifying, recruiting, clearing, and obtaining Senate confirmation of key appointees,” it concluded.

Impeachment is not the only factor slowing the process. While Democrats won two Senate runoff elections in Georgia this month, securing the thinnest of majorities, the party will not take control of the chamber until later this week. In the meantime, Senate Republicans continue to chair the key committees that will hold hearings on Biden’s nominees, and they have thus far been slow to schedule those hearings.

[Trump is leaving behind crises and undermining Biden before he takes office]

Nominees to lead four departments — Defense, Homeland Security, State and Treasury — are scheduled for hearings Tuesday, the day before the inauguration. The hearing for Pete Buttigieg’s nomination to lead the Transportation Department is set for the day after the inauguration.

“While hearings have now been scheduled, the American people deserve assurances that swift floor votes will follow,” Biden transition spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement. “Progress toward confirmations still lags significantly behind where it was at this point during the last two presidential transitions, and it is essential that key national security and economic leaders are confirmed and in place on day one.”

President-elect Joe Biden, joined by Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris, at right, introduces members of his national security team in November in Wilmington, Del.
President-elect Joe Biden, joined by Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris, at right, introduces members of his national security team in November in Wilmington, Del. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

Bates called on Senate Republicans to move swiftly and pointed out that the Senate held hearings during Trump’s first impeachment proceeding last year.

Biden has few options while he waits for a Cabinet: He could maintain officials appointed by Trump — though many have left their posts already or hold vastly different policy views — or he could turn to career civil servants to fill gaps.

“There are wonderful career officers in the agencies, some who are quite capable of running a big-ticket agency,” said Paul C. Light, a political science professor at New York University. Yet even the most competent and experienced civil servants are at a disadvantage, Light said, because unlike political appointees, they are not seen as speaking for the president.

“At the end of the day, the political appointees have the president’s good faith and credit,” Light said.

Experts said Biden will have to prioritize which nominees he wants to get confirmed fastest to ensure the agencies whose missions are most crucial to enacting the president’s agenda are led by political appointees.

Beyond the Cabinet, presidents can send the Senate nominations for more than 1,200 executive-branch positions, many of which sit vacant for months in the meantime.

[We're tracking nearly 800 of Biden's top political appointees]

“I can’t think of a worse time to have our executive branch so understaffed, given just the magnitude of the challenges that are taking place right now,” Bell said. “You’ve got huge numbers of vacancies down the line in some of these places.”

Senate control does not guarantee smooth passage for all of Biden’s picks. Every incoming president since George H.W. Bush has had at least one major Cabinet nominee fail, and a razor-thin Democratic majority may be forced into contentious nomination battles in the coming weeks. Cabinet nominations have also become more contentious than they once were.

Here’s how quickly Biden might expect to fill major Cabinet roles, ordered by the median length of time it has taken to fill each role in the past, starting with the quickest.

Five of the past six presidents, including Trump, have had their defense secretary confirmed on Day 1, and the Biden administration hopes the Senate will move quickly to confirm retired Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III.

Like Trump’s pick, retired Marine Gen. Jim Mattis, Austin will have to obtain a congressional waiver, because of a law requiring the Pentagon chief to have been retired from military service for at least seven years. Congress is likely to grant the waiver to Austin, who retired from the Army in 2016, but that debate could delay a final vote.

The Department of Homeland Security, created after 9/11, is the newest of the 15 departments and the third-largest government entity. President Barack Obama and Trump had their picks confirmed on Inauguration Day, and Biden’s pick, Alejandro Mayorkas, is scheduled for a hearing Tuesday. Biden is looking to turn the page on the politicization and leadership turmoil at DHS under Trump after the department had six secretaries in four years.

Betsy DeVos, a billionaire and private-schools advocate who was Trump’s education secretary, had the closest confirmation vote in his Cabinet, with Pence casting the tie-breaking vote to approve her. Before DeVos, the education slot was filled by Day 3 for every other president going back to Ronald Reagan. Biden’s pick, Miguel Cardona, has pushed to reopen ­pandemic-shuttered schools and is not aligned with either side in the education policy battles of recent years. No hearing had been scheduled to consider Cardona’s nomination heading into inauguration week.

Biden wasted little time in announcing Janet L. Yellen, the former Federal Reserve chair, for the Treasury Department post, doing so on Nov. 23, 16 days after major news outlets projected him the winner. The incoming president probably wants to prioritize her confirmation, since she would have the responsibility of helping implement his proposed $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan. Her confirmation would also make history: Yellen would be the first woman to lead the department.

The secretary of state, one of the most important roles in the Cabinet, has traditionally garnered quick approval from the Senate. Like that of other Trump nominees, Rex Tillerson’s work in the private sector and lack of government experience were scrutinized by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but he was ultimately in place within two weeks. Antony Blinken, a longtime Biden foreign policy aide and former deputy secretary of state, is a more traditional pick and faces a Senate panel Tuesday.

Former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack served eight years as Obama’s agriculture secretary, and Biden has tapped him again for the post. He was confirmed by voice vote on Inauguration Day in 2009. Trump announced former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue as his nominee one day before he took office, and the confirmation took nearly 100 days.

Most recent presidents waited less than a week for an energy secretary at the start of their administration, though Trump and George H.W. Bush lacked one for more than a month. Biden has tapped former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, a clean-energy advocate, to lead the department that oversees efficiency standards and clean-energy efforts and maintains the nation’s nuclear weapons.

The federal department overseeing veterans efforts was elevated to the Cabinet level early in George H.W. Bush’s presidency. Trump picked David J. Shulkin, a doctor and undersecretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs in the Obama administration, and he was confirmed unanimously in mid-February 2017 to be the department’s first non-veteran chief. Biden turned to Denis McDonough, a former White House chief of staff, disappointing some veterans groups because he also never served in uniform.

Ben Carson was one of six Trump nominees to head major Cabinet departments who waited more than a month after Inauguration Day to be confirmed. Most other past picks to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development were confirmed within five days. Biden’s pick, Rep. Marcia L Fudge (D-Ohio), has served in Congress since 2008 and was previously mayor of Warrensville Heights, a suburb of Cleveland.

Transportation secretaries have typically received swift confirmations. Obama and George W. Bush picked members of the opposite party to serve in the post. Biden did not, tapping Buttigieg, the former South Bend, Ind., mayor and Democratic presidential candidate who endorsed him after dropping out of the race in March. Buttigieg’s committee hearing is scheduled for the day after the inauguration.

Trump’s Interior Department pick, Montana congressman and former Navy SEAL Ryan Zinke, faced delays to his confirmation because of concerns over Trump’s approach to the environment and Zinke’s lukewarm embrace of climate science. Biden’s pick, Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), has served in the House since 2019. Haaland is a member of the Pueblo of Laguna and would be the first Native American to lead the department charged with overseeing federal and tribal lands.

The Commerce Department spot was particularly fraught for Obama, who saw two of his nominees for the position withdraw. Biden’s pick, Gina Raimondo, has been Rhode Island’s governor since 2015 and previously served as the state’s general treasurer. Raimondo, who has often been at odds with major labor unions, also previously worked in venture capital.

Trump and George W. Bush both had Labor Department nominees withdraw — Trump’s for employing an undocumented immigrant and Bush’s for simply giving aid to one. Biden’s pick to lead the department, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, signals the incoming administration’s intention to reverse the employer- and industry-friendly approach of the Trump administration that has frustrated worker advocates, labor unions and Democrats. Walsh has a long history in organized labor, most recently as the head of the Boston Building Trades before he became mayor.

The confirmations of previous health and human services secretaries have taken longer than many other Cabinet positions, though the pandemic lends urgency to Xavier Becerra’s nomination. The former congressman and current California attorney general will help manage the country’s coronavirus response and oversee the rollout of vaccines if confirmed. Trump waited 22 days before Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), was confirmed. Obama waited 99 days before Kathleen Sebelius was installed, after previous nominee Tom Daschle withdrew from consideration, citing a failure to pay $146,000 in back taxes.

Over the past six administrations, attorneys general have taken the longest of the principal 15 Cabinet roles. Biden announced his much later than others have, waiting until after the Senate runoffs in Georgia to tap Merrick B. Garland for the role. The nomination to the nation’s top law enforcement position was a nightmare for President Bill Clinton, who saw two consecutive candidates forced to withdraw over questions about the hiring of undocumented immigrants to provide child care. (One of them is not included in this timeline, because she withdrew the day before Clinton could announce the pick.)

About this story

Dates for Cabinet confirmations from the U.S. Senate (Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump). Hearing dates from James King, University of Wyoming.

Kevin Uhrmacher contributed to this report.

Harry Stevens is a graphics reporter at The Washington Post. He was part of a team at The Post that won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for the series “2C: Beyond the Limit.”