In November, President Trump declared that he didn’t need to fill empty government positions. “I am the only one that matters,” he said. “When it comes to it, [my position is] what the policy will be.” Trump has filled the smallest percentage of top leadership positions compared with the previous five administrations. Around half of top positions are empty — including a nearly four-month vacancy at the helm of the Department of Health and Human Services, which is essential to Trump’s health-care agenda. The pace of nominations to critical positions is 30 percent down, or four months behind, compared with previous administrations.
Vacancies create a leadership vacuum that thwarts any president’s agenda. They also limit government’s ability to administer critical and non‑partisan duties.
So why so many empty chairs and why the slow pace?
Counting the vacancies
The White House Transition Project, a nonpartisan consortium of scholars, documents appointments during an administration’s first year. Our data set surveys almost 4,000 nominations to “PAS positions” (Presidential Appointment, Senate-confirmed) dating to President Ronald Reagan.
There are two types of these positions. Some nominations are to fill about 200 “critical” positions, carrying out the government’s primary responsibilities: setting economic policies (Federal Reserve Board of Governors), providing national security (FBI director), or conducting international diplomacy (ambassador to Britain). Other nominations fill 900 more “routine” positions that, nevertheless, make or oversee the making of policies.
For each critical and routine nomination, we track how long it takes to identify and investigate a nominee, go through Senate committees and then get to the full Senate.
The Trump administration has a lot of empty chairs
As we show in the figure below, after its first full year, the Trump team staffing the most critical government functions looks like a ghost brigade of empty chairs. The Trump White House has announced a nominee for just two‑thirds of critical positions. And the Republican-led Senate has confirmed only enough of these nominees to fill half of the government’s critical leadership positions.
On routine positions, Trump also lags behind recent presidents. The White House has identified only a third of the needed nominees and filled only a quarter of those positions.
Are Democrats to blame?
Like other presidents, Trump blames the opposition party for choking the process and blocking his nominees. Unlike Trump, past presidents faced opponents with more tools for resisting — including the filibuster. In 2013, Democrats banned nomination filibusters, making Trump the first president in his first year to need only 50 Senate votes to confirm nominees. Since Republicans control the Senate and don’t have to overcome a filibuster, Trump should have a stout Senate wind at his back.
It’s possible that Democrats have invented new ways to slow-walk nominees both in committee and on the way to a Senate floor vote. More likely, they have merely mimicked the tactics of their Republican colleagues when they had faced President Barack Obama’s early nominations. Precise evaluations are hard because for some, such as Kevin McAleenan, nominated in May to head U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Democrats could very well be slow-walking. But even those nominations that seem like successful Democratic opportunism might actually be Republican senators themselves reluctant to confirm a troubling nominee — controversial nominee Rep. Tom Marino comes to mind.
To assess Democratic foot-dragging, we can compare the early Obama experience against the early experience of the last majority Republican president, George W. Bush. The difference between the Senate processing of Obama nominees and the baseline for Bush’s nominees would suggest what is possible by foot‑dragging. Given the Trump majority’s stronger hand, any additional days beyond the Obama experience with slow‑walking probably represent potential disappointment among Republicans with their president’s nominees.
Compared with Bush’s nominees, Obama’s nominees took 30 days longer, our slow-walk baseline. Compared with Bush’s nominees, Trump nominees have taken 40 days longer to clear the Senate, which includes both the 30‑day slow-walk and an additional 10 days for Republican discomfort.
Can the White House be blamed for the slow pace?
We can do the same analysis on the White House side of our data. Given the successful Bush transition, we can again use it as a baseline. The time the Trump team took searching for its nominees and vetting them added an average 40 more days over the Bush baseline.
So we might attribute 30 days of delay to opportunistic Democrats slow‑walking — but in finding nominees, vetting them and eventually sending nominees who make Republicans uncomfortable, the Trump White House has contributed an additional 50 days to slowing the pace of filling top spots.
Earlier, we noted that Trump claimed the empty chairs were his choice. Can other Trump choices have just as strong an effect? One such choice is about the transition. Reagan’s 1980 campaign, for example, studied appointments for more than six months ahead of the election and, thus, hit the ground running. Following that model, candidate Trump began preparing for his transition in the summer of 2016 with Gov. Chris Christie in charge, but Trump abruptly replaced him four days after the election, thereby setting his new team’s preparations back by at least two months.
Our data identifies one additional reason for the slowdown and those empty chairs. It’s hinted at by Sen. James Lankford (R‑Okla.) in a recent comment: “We have learned … that we are either going to do nominees, or we are going to do legislation, but we can’t do both.” Because they are engaged in reshaping health care, undercutting global diplomacy and alliances, avoiding a budget crisis, redefining immigration, investigating Russia, or revamping the tax code, senators can deliberate on nominees only in their spare time. Without effective White House coordination, Senate deliberations will get sidetracked and drag on.
Our data shows this trade-off to some extent in every president’s first year: The longer a White House waits to nominate someone, the longer the Senate takes to deliberate. Trump’s decisions have simply magnified this effect.
Terry Sullivan is executive director of the White House Transition Project and author of Nerve Center: Lessons on Governing from the White House Chiefs of Staff (Texas A&M University Press, 2004).