President Joe Biden is facing a border crisis without a confirmed border commissioner, spending fights without an official budget director and a pandemic without a confirmed Food and Drug Administration commissioner.
Nearly halfway through his first year in office, Biden has sent more nominations to the Senate and has had more people confirmed than the Trump administration did at the same point, though Biden still lags behind other White House predecessors.
Just a few months ago, Biden earned the distinction of becoming the first president in more than 30 years to have all of his original Cabinet secretary nominees confirmed to their posts. This encompasses the 15 major agency heads to receive Senate confirmation and whose Cabinet positions are included in the presidential line of succession.
But since then, a combination of troubled picks and Senate intransigence has left Biden facing a handful of crises without key, confirmed leadership. The 50-50 Senate, with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tie-breaking vote, has also complicated efforts to fill administration slots.
As the Senate returns from its July 4th break, lawmakers face a slew of pending nominations for various posts in the Biden administration. More than 200 nominations were awaiting Senate confirmation at the start of this month, according to new data from the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service.
“The Senate has a huge role to play here. The pace of Senate confirmations has slowed substantially over the last 30 to 40 years or so,” said Loren DeJonge Schulman, vice president for research and evaluation at the Partnership.
This trend is now yielding a “backlog” of nominees “waiting for their opportunity to have an up-or-down vote,” said Schulman.
The delays could pose public health and national security risks and make it harder for the President to accomplish his agenda.
Across the Biden administration, departments are also seeing several of their top leadership positions without a formal Biden nominee, although in some cases they’re filled by officials serving in acting capacities.
In March, the White House pulled the nomination of Neera Tanden to lead the Office of Management and Budget after pushback over her past comments and tweets insulting lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Currently, Deputy Director Shalanda Young is serving as acting head of OMB at a time when the agency is playing an important role in the Biden administration’s push for Congress to implement key spending priorities from the President’s first budget.
The President has yet to name someone to permanently lead an agency at the forefront of the coronavirus fight: the FDA.
The agency is currently being run by Dr. Janet Woodcock. A career official since 1986, Woodcock has served as acting head since January of this year, but has come under fire from several Senate Democrats over the FDA’s role in the opioid crisis and is no longer considered the front-runner for the nomination, multiple sources tell CNN. It’s unclear who else the White House is considering for the job.
Now facing a confluence of major challenges, the Biden administration is under pressure to name more nominees — and get their pending ones confirmed as swiftly as possible.
“We are ahead of prior administrations in terms of nominations sent to the Senate for confirmation, and we have outstanding acting leaders at OMB and FDA, and we look forward to nominating qualified people to these positions,” White House spokesperson Chris Meagher said in a statement. “We also are hopeful that Senate Republicans will cease using time-consuming floor mechanics to hold up our more than 200 extremely qualified, experienced nominees — many of which will be working on important matters of national security and will receive broad bipartisan support — to begin the important work ahead of them.”
Key agencies impacted by Senate backlog
The State Department faces the largest backlog, with 40 nominees awaiting Senate confirmation at the start of July, according to the Partnership’s data. This includes several ambassadorship posts, as well as key roles dealing with international security, arms control and human rights, as tracked by the Partnership and The Washington Post.
When it comes to national security, Schulman says the White House is “incredibly inhibited by the lack of appointees that they have confirmed, whether it be at the Department of State, the Department of Defense, or elsewhere.”
Biden nominated David Chipman to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in April, seeking the first Senate-confirmed director of the agency since 2015 and just the second in its history. But Chipman — a career official at ATF for 25 years and more recently a top adviser with Giffords, a gun-control group run by former Arizona congresswoman and gun-violence survivor Gabby Giffords — has been criticized by the National Rifle Association, turning off some moderate Republicans and causing some squeamishness among centrist Democrats.
As the White House rolled out a series of immigration measures over recent months, the nominated leaders of the agencies charged with overseeing parts of the immigration system are also still awaiting confirmation.
The three agencies under the Department of Homeland Security — US Citizenship and Immigration Services, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection — are all operating under acting leadership, until those selected to lead are confirmed by the Senate. It’s become familiar territory for each agency after rotating leadership under former President Donald Trump. ICE, which is currently led by career official Tae Johnson, never had a Senate-confirmed director during the four years of the Trump administration.
This Thursday, though, Biden’s pick for ICE director, Ed Gonzalez, will testify before the Senate Homeland Security Committee, in a step toward possible confirmation. Gonzalez, who was elected sheriff of Harris County, Texas, in 2016, has a decades-long career in law enforcement, according to his biography.
Ur Jaddou, who was selected to serve as USCIS director, already had her hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee and was voted on favorably. She’s now on the Senate executive calendar. Jaddou was formerly chief counsel at the agency under President Barack Obama and led the Biden-Harris DHS transition review team.
But still missing on the calendar is Biden’s nominee to head CBP, Tucson, Arizona, police chief Chris Magnus. The agency, which is currently led by acting Commissioner Troy Miller, was confronted with an increase of migrants at the US-Mexico border this year that led to overcrowded facilities and unaccompanied children staying in custody for prolonged periods of time.
Nominations by the numbers
By all accounts, compared to the Trump administration, Biden is seeing both larger numbers of nominations and confirmations in the Senate.
Data from the Partnership for Public Service, which is tracking civilian nominations that require Senate confirmation, shows Biden outpaced the previous administration with 304 nominations and 91 confirmations at the start of July.
Then-President Trump, meanwhile, had 213 nominations and roughly half the confirmations — at 49 — during the same point in his administration.
Although he’s outpacing Trump on confirmations, Biden is still behind Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, who both saw larger numbers of individuals confirmed — 179 and 130 respectively — at that point in their presidential tenures, according to the Partnership’s data.
Biden’s number of nominations is also slightly lower than that of Obama (325) and Bush (308).
“It’s the pace of confirmations that I think is pretty notable, given how far behind he is” from Obama and Bush, Schulman notes.
And while the Biden administration “can’t control how quickly the Senate moves,” she contends, they can still play a role in emphasizing this issue in conversations with Senate leadership.
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