By Alexander Bolton - 07/22/14 06:00 AM EDT
Partisan gridlock blocking President Obama’s nominees for prestigious ambassadorships has created vacancies in a slew of top diplomatic posts at a time of growing international instability.
It has also prevented Democrats from rewarding some of their biggest donors and bundlers in the midst of an intense campaign year, when they are eager to raise more money than Republicans.
Secretary of State John Kerry warned earlier this month that the United States “continues to operate without a complete diplomatic toolbox” as the Senate backlog has left the nation without ambassadors in 40 countries.
Diplomacy experts worry that the Democratic nominees who have political ties from raising tens of thousands of dollars are being confirmed at a higher rate than career foreign service officers.
Republicans aren’t interested in seeing Democratic money mavens rewarded and have dug in their heels. Democrats counter that many GOP presidents have tapped influential party insiders as ambassadors.
In this Congress, some of Obama’s ambassadors publicly admitted their lack of knowledge about the countries in which they were slotted to work. That attracted criticism from Republicans and even Jon Stewart, the left-leaning host of “The Daily Show.”
The Senate standoff has sidelined some of the Democrats’ biggest donors as well, which sends a troubling message to top-tier fundraisers who may be angling for appointments in 2015 or beyond.
As time on the 2014 legislative calendar dwindles to a few weeks, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has increased the pressure on Republicans to remove procedural hurdles for the ambassadorial nominees.
Reid has taken to the floor repeatedly in recent weeks to flog Republicans for holding up ambassadors, whom he called the “all-stars of the diplomatic corps of this country.”
“Right now, these ambassadors are on the front lines. They are fighting to defend our interests abroad — our security interests, our national interests, and our economic interests,” he said Thursday. “Right now there are gaping holes in our nation’s front lines.”
He could force floor votes on the nominees, but that would entail spending hours satisfying procedural requirements Republicans are refusing to waive.
A senior Democratic aide accused Republicans of knee-jerk obstructionism.
“Do they think it is a good use of the taxpayers’ time to force the Senate to spend days running out procedural clocks on nominees they support, when we could confirm them all in an afternoon?” the staffer asked. “This is a childish temper tantrum.”
Some of the nominees in the backlog have given tens of thousands of dollars to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) and Democratic candidates.
Jane Hartley, Obama’s nominee to serve as ambassador to France, has given more than $30,000 to the DSCC in the 2014 election cycle, according to Center For Responsive Politics (CRP), which tracks fundraising.
She has also given more than $24,000 this cycle to Senate Democratic candidates, including $2,600 to Sen. Mark Warner (Va.), $2,600 to Sen. Mark Udall (Colo.), $1,000 to Sen. Mark Begich (Alaska) and $1,000 to Michelle Nunn, the Democratic candidate for Senate in Georgia. She raised more than $500,000 as a bundler for Obama’s campaign in 2012.
George Tsunis, Obama’s nominee to serve as ambassador to Norway, raised $843,000 for the president’s 2012 reelection campaign. He also gave $2,700 to Reid’s campaign and $32,500 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee last year, according to the CRP.
He gave $125,000 in 2012 to Senate Majority PAC, the super PAC dedicated to preserving the Democrats’ control of the upper chamber
Tsunis’s nomination has since run into trouble because he appeared to be otherwise unqualified for the post during his hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) sent a letter to Kerry informing him that he would oppose the nomination because “Mr. Tsunis’ remarks during the hearing have deeply damaged his credibility with the people of Norway.”
Colleen Bell, Obama’s pick to head the U.S. Embassy in Hungary, raised more than $500,000 for Obama’s 2012 campaign and gave more than $10,000 to Senate Democrats in 2013, including $2,600 to Warner and $2,500 to Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.). She has given more than $300,000 to federal candidates, PACs and parties since 1990.
Obama’s pick to serve as ambassador to Argentina, Noah Mamet, has donated $96,800 to Democratic candidates, parties and PACs since 1990 and bundled at least $500,000 in contributions to Obama’s 2012 campaign.
He also ran into trouble during his confirmation hearing when he characterized Argentina as an ally, despite recent tensions over a court ruling on debts owed to American creditors and a recent nuclear deal Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner signed with Russia.
Robert Silverman, the president of the American Foreign Service Association, says the backlog of ambassadorial nominees is worrisome.
“A high percentage of the people who are getting through the system are the political appointees, and so we’ve certainly raised that issue with the administration,” he said. “There’s been a real slowdown in general, and that’s a bipartisan problem. But then the people who are getting through and confirmed tend largely to be political, so we’re concerned about that.”
Silverman wants the Senate to focus on the qualified career nominees and confirm them quickly.
Presidents have long appointed donors and political allies to serve as ambassadors, but the number has soared during Obama’s second term, say experts who track the process.
Lars Hydle, a former president of the American Foreign Service Association, said that since his group started to track statistics, most presidents have selected political appointees for about 30 percent of ambassadorships and career foreign service officers for the rest.
“In the second term, at least at some point in the last few weeks, Obama has nominated more than half of his nominees from non-career people,” Hydle said.
As the selection of nominees has become more influenced by politics, the Senate confirmation process has turned more partisan.
Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), an influential voice on foreign affairs, raised his concerns in a February op-ed published in The Wall Street Journal.
“There is only one reason why the ambassadorial nominees for Norway, Hungary and Argentina were selected for this high honor and huge responsibility. It is not because they are distinguished members of our Foreign Service. They are not,” he wrote. “No, the sole criteria that has gotten these individuals nominated is their wealth and their willingness to give large portions of it to President Obama and the Democratic Party.”
Many noncontroversial and qualified nominees have been caught up in the fight.
As of Monday night, 47 ambassadors were awaiting Senate confirmation as well as 11 nominees to senior positions at the United Nations, international banks, commissions and other posts, according to the State Department.
Thirty-nine of the 58 nominees in the backlog are career diplomats, and most have been waiting for a vote since last year.