That administration, at this stage, had secured only 28 confirmations, and President George W. Bush had managed only 34. President Barack Obama had done better by his 100th day with 67 confirmations, but President Biden has submitted more nominees for Senate consideration (220) than Obama (190), Bush (85) or Donald Trump (72).
Moreover, Biden has installed an impressive 1,500 appointees in positions that don’t require confirmation.
But step back and ask: Why in the world do we require 1,200 government officials to go through the time-consuming, often unilluminating and even counterproductive Senate confirmation process? And why do we designate 4,000 jobs as patronage appointments, a number unmatched in any other democracy, to turn over every time there is a new president?
One unavoidable answer: Because we are willing to live with the government dysfunction that both give rise to.
“We have to prove democracy still works,” Biden said in his first address to Congress last week.
I think the president is right to identify that as his, and the nation’s, most urgent priority, and it has many layers. Following a president who was so contemptuous of democratic norms; facing an opposition party that continues to falsely challenge the legitimacy of American elections; speaking through social media that frequently distorts and deceives — Biden has his work cut out for him as he aims to restore faith in democracy.
But an obvious place to start is to prove, as Biden went on to say, “that our government still works.” And one way to improve government would be to end the quadrennial turnover of personnel that is both too massive and too slow.
“It’s just a broken system,” says Max Stier. Stier is president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit that advocates for policies that will improve the quality of the federal workforce and appropriately reward that workforce when it does good work. (The partnership also collaborates with The Post to keep track of administration appointments and is the source of the numbers at the top of this column.)
The dysfunction manifests in multiple ways. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was confirmed at the start of the administration, but he’s had to gear up without a leadership team. By the time the latecomers arrive, early appointees will have formed relationships and practices, making it hard for everyone to mesh. By the time Biden’s full team is in place, the midterm election will be looming.
Moreover, Stier notes, the average tenure of confirmed appointees ends up being only about two years — and that was before the Trump administration, with its frequent turnover, undoubtedly brought down the average. The natural inclination for a confirmed appointee, arriving late and feeling pressed for time, is to burn through talent, not build a workforce for the long haul.
Meanwhile, the vast number of patronage slots tends to devalue expertise and experience. Many presidential appointees are superbly qualified — more this year than four years ago — but inevitably some are being rewarded more for loyalty than suitability for the job.
The rational system would be to have a far smaller number of political appointees, who would ensure the president’s policies are carried out as they direct a corps of civil servants with institutional memory and the qualifications to take on the increasingly complex problems government must grapple with. Among those political appointees, an even smaller number of leaders would be confirmable and accountable to the Senate.
Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of institutional resistance to change. The more appointments the Senate can hold up, the more leverage it has over administration policy.
A recent case in point: Every Republican on the Senate Finance Committee on April 22 voted against Biden’s appointee to run the agency that oversees Medicare and Medicaid, not because they think Chiquita Brooks-LaSure is unqualified, but in protest of an administration decision affecting Medicaid delivery in Texas. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) has vowed to delay a vote on her nomination by the full Senate for the same reason. Meanwhile, one of the government’s most important agencies will remain rudderless.
So, congratulations to the Biden team for hitting 44 on Day 100. Let’s hope they can get to 1,200 before the year is out — and, even more, let’s hope they promote reform so the next president faces fewer confirmation battles.