“Democrats are obstructing good (hopefully great) people wanting to give up a big portion of their life to work for our Government, hence, the American People. They are ‘slow walking’ all of my nominations — hundreds of people. At this rate it would take 9 years for all approvals!”
— President Trump, in a tweet, April 19, 2018
“At this rate, it would take the administration more than 11 years to get all of our political appointees confirmed — the United States Senate. It is a broken process. Another data point to give your listeners is that the last four presidents combined from H.W. Bush to Clinton to W. Bush to Obama — in their entire first term — so all four of them, their entire first four years, 16 years combined, there were 32 filibusters, 32 on nominees. In 15 months this administration, we’ve had more than 80.”
— Marc Short, White House legislative affairs director, in an interview on NPR, April 18
This fact check has been updated
The White House cannot seem to agree on a specific talking point about how long it would take to confirm every nominee — the president says nine years, while his aide says 11 — but in any case, officials say it would be a long time, even longer than a two-term presidency.
We wondered about the math on this and decided to investigate.
The Washington Post presidential appointment tracker, which tracks roughly 600 key executive positions, shows that it has taken Trump much longer to get his appointees confirmed compared with other recent presidents. For Trump, it has been 85 days on average, compared with 65 for Barack Obama and 44 for George W. Bush.
Compared with those other presidents, however, Trump has also been much slower to submit nominees. Obama and Bush had nominated a total of 774 and 888 people, respectively, at this point, compared with 684 for Trump.
Democrats claim that too many of Trump’s nominees were poorly vetted or had incomplete documentation, leading to delays. Trump has not helped matters by forcing out or firing key Cabinet members, requiring the Senate to set aside sub-Cabinet posts to focus on those more important nominations. He also has done little to reach out to Democrats, which might help smooth the way.
But a key factor, as Short noted, is the constant requirement to invoke cloture for votes on nominations, often referred in public discourse as a filibuster.
A filibuster generally refers to extended debate that delays a vote on a pending matter, while cloture is a device to end debate. Filibusters are used by opponents of a nominee or legislation, while cloture is filed by supporters. In the past, it took 60 votes to end debate on nominations, but a rule change engineered by then-Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) in late 2013 changed it to a simple majority.
The rule change meant the majority could push through nominations that might have previously failed to meet a 60-vote threshold. But it did not mean that the lawmakers had to stop demanding a cloture vote on every nominee. Republicans were so infuriated by the rules change that they gummed up the works throughout 2014, requiring cloture votes on dozens of nominees even though many were ultimately confirmed unanimously or by voice vote.
Note that Short, the White House aide, compared what is happening under Trump to the first four years of four previous presidents (32 filibusters vs. 80 in just Trump’s first 15 months.) His numbers are correct, but the framing allows him to ignore what happened to Obama after the rules change. One can also argue that a new president should be permitted to quickly set up his administration.
So how does the cloture process slow everything down?
Normally, there is unanimous consent to proceed to a nomination vote. But without that consent, supporters need to file cloture. If you file cloture on Monday, the cloture vote ripens on Wednesday (the first day of session after an “intervening day”).
Then, if cloture is invoked, up to 30 hours of debate time is available, which takes the Senate into Thursday afternoon. In other words, it can take four Senate days for one nominee.
The process is slightly speeded up if supporters file cloture on multiple nominees at once. They only have to use up the “intervening day” on the first nominee, but there are still up to 30 hours on each after that. In other words, filing cloture on four nominees would take Monday through Thursday for the first one, then 30 hours for each subsequent nominee, taking you into the following week.
Opponents don’t have to use up all 30 hours and can yield back time, so the week of April 9, the Senate was able to get through cloture motions on six nominees. But insisting on cloture votes slows down the process, especially because it now is virtually impossible to block a nominee since Reid lowered the threshold to a simple majority.
Matt House, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), noted that under Obama, 168 nominees faced cloture votes and yet nearly 40 percent were confirmed unanimously or by voice vote. Of Obama’s judicial nominees, 97 faced cloture votes, and yet 90 were confirmed. House further noted that, for all the complaints about delays, Trump has already had 32 judicial nominations confirmed. (There are 180 current and future vacancies, and 73 Trump nominees are pending.)
So how does Trump come up with the idea that it would take nine years to approve all of his nominees?
Here’s the math.
There are 1,242 presidential appointees who need Senate approval. He has 300 confirmed, so that leaves 942 to go. Add in the 180 open judicial posts, and you have a total of 1,122 nominations.
Assuming each nominee is subjected to 30 hours of debate, that’s 33,660 hours, or 1,402 days. But of course the Senate is not in session every day — only about 150 days a year. So that works out to almost 9.4 years, assuming that all the Senate did was work on nominations subject to a cloture vote. (Not every nomination is subject to a cloture vote, but, at the same time, one would expect the Senate to spend some time trying to pass laws.)
If you counted only the nearly 300 nominees Trump has pending, it would take 2.5 years, or almost to the end of this term.
[Update: After this fact check was published, House said that we should have measured based on the rate of confirmations so far. He provided documentation showing that 432 of Trump’s nominees have been confirmed, with 314 by voice vote. In other words, about one in four have been subject to a cloture vote. If the same rate were applied going forward, that would mean 2.3 years would be needed to confirm Trump’s remaining nominees, assuming the Senate did absolutely nothing else but confirm nominees. (In our previous calculation, we also had not counted intervening days.)
Trump’s full quote was: “They are ‘slow walking’ all of my nominations — hundreds of people. At this rate it would take 9 years for all approvals!” The White House says that he was speaking about the rate going forward if all nominees were subject to cloture, and so that’s measure that should be used. House denied that Democrats are slow-walking all of Trump’s nominees.
We expanded on this debate in a follow-up column.]
The Pinocchio Test
Both sides point fingers over which party is responsible for this situation. Given the slow pace of Trump’s efforts to fill his administration, we’re not sure he could come up with an additional 900 names in the next three years. But it’s clear that Democrats have slowed the process on even noncontroversial nominees, just as Republicans did in 2014.
In any case, the math adds up, at least for Trump, and so we give the president the elusive Geppetto Checkmark.
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