A new report by the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit good-government organization, sums up the current situation with this title: “Senate Confirmation Process Slows to a Crawl.”
The crawl is a particular problem for sub-Cabinet appointees. Their nomination-to-confirmation waits under President Trump and former president Barack Obama have been about 3.5 times longer than timelines for agency leaders at the very top.
This has been developing for years, decades, generations. During Trump’s first three years in the White House, the Senate took twice as long to confirm sub-Cabinet nominees, 115 days on average, as the 56 days during President Ronald Reagan’s two terms.
The report cites various factors for the sluggishness, many of which have been around for a long time. What has changed is “the increased use of Senate filibusters in recent years to delay nominations,” the report said. Another factor, added Max Stier, the Partnership’s president and chief executive, is the increasing partisanship clogging the Senate’s works.
Although the confirmation process is directly linked to presidential administrations and the Senate, the impact is felt in the agencies.
Stier likened acting, or temporary, officials who fill slots when there is no confirmed appointee to substitute teachers. They might have the needed qualifications and attitude for the job, but they lack the authority, in real terms, of the confirmed officeholder.
If you are a temporary official, “you’re not going to take on the long-term issues,” Stier said. “And people on the outside aren’t going to see you as a reasonable counterparty to make decisions over the long term either. So, you’re basically putting an organization into statis.”
That can have a direct impact on service to the public.
Stier can’t quantify the impact on taxpayers, but he said, “It is quite frequently the case that the choices and decisions that need to be made do not get made as well or as quickly when you have temporary leadership in place.”
Political appointees set policies for federal agencies, but it is civil service employees who implement programs that flow from those policies. If policymaking is slowed by the confirmation process, policy implementation necessarily will be, too.
The long, laborious and intrusive confirmation process hurts in other ways.
“Leaders matter,” Stier said. But potential leaders are turned off by a confirmation process that simply isn’t worth it.
“Many service-minded people even forgo a presidential appointment because the lengthy process takes a heavy toll on their professional and personal lives,” according to the report.
As the confirmation process for many agency officials has been slow, it is moving with all deliberate speed in the judiciary.
“After three years in office, President Trump has remade the federal judiciary, ensuring a conservative tilt for decades and cementing his legacy no matter the outcome of November’s election,” my colleague Colby Itkowitz reported last month. Now, 25 percent of U.S. circuit court judges are Trump appointees.
Even as Congress and the nation have been consumed with Trump’s impeachment, judicial confirmations continued apace. “As the House voted to impeach the president,” Itkowitz wrote during the third week in December, “the Republican-led Senate confirmed an additional 13 district court judges.”
To get ahead of the slow agency confirmation process, the Partnership’s Center for Presidential Transition urges presidential hopefuls to begin preparing soon for the administration that will take office a year from now. The Partnership’s report said presidential transition teams should identify and select potential candidates for Senate-confirmed positions before the presidential election.
“This need for effective planning is particularly acute for the Democratic challengers,” the center’s bipartisan advisory board said in an open letter. “If successful, a new president in short order will have to recruit 4,000 political appointees, including 1,200 who require Senate confirmation; prepare a $4.7 trillion budget; roll out and pursue a vigorous policy agenda; and learn how to manage a workforce of 2 million civilian employees and 2 million active duty and reserve troops.”
Four thousand political appointees, including 1,200 needing Senate confirmation? Do we need so many?
No, says the Partnership and Paul C. Light, a New York University public service professor who has written extensively about political appointees.
“The current appointments process cannot be saved with further tweaks,” Light said. “I think the only way to go at this is to cut the number of presidential appointments to a bare minimum. We just don’t need the current number and have lost all semblance of accountability.
“It’s time to stop the madness by cutting the number of advise-and-consent appointees,” he added. “If a post cannot be filled within a reasonable amount of time . . . then it should be abolished as a presidential appointment.”