Biden hampered by lack of confirmations
President Biden is facing a convergence of challenges without a full complement of agency leaders who would typically oversee efforts on the ground to address them.
The administration is searching for solutions to the growing border crisis, but the president has yet to nominate officials to lead Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) — three key components of the immigration system.
Biden’s trip to Georgia on Friday after a gunman killed eight people, most of whom were Asian, came amid the absence of a nominee to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), which typically assists with investigating such incidents.
And the president has yet to announce his pick for commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), an agency that plays a critical role in determining the safety of vaccines and drugs to treat COVID-19.
“All important agencies,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday when asked by The Hill about the vacancies. “I don’t have any update on the personnel process, but we’re working our way through and ensuring we have the right people we can nominate for each of those important roles.”
The White House has partly been at the mercy of a slow-moving Senate when it comes to confirming nominees. Biden is still without his full Cabinet roughly 60 days into his presidency, and he’s had fewer officials confirmed at this point in office than his three predecessors.
At the same time, he has yet to put forward nominees for high profile posts at immigration and health agencies, even as he names choices to lead departments like NASA.
The Senate’s deliberate pace was particularly evident with Xavier Becerra, Biden’s choice for secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS). He was confirmed Thursday after Republican senators forced a drawn out process amid concerns about his qualifications and policy views.
The vacancy at HHS has loomed over Biden’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the surge in young migrants at the border. HHS oversees facilities where unaccompanied minors are housed, and the administration confirmed Thursday it has more than 14,000 migrant children in government custody.
As Biden officials grapple with how to handle the situation at the border, the president has yet to put forward nominees for ICE, CBP or USCIS, all of which play a role in the apprehension, detention or processing of migrants and immigrants.
The White House did not respond to a question about whether the lack of nominees is hindering its operations.
Former government officials suggested the lack of a Senate-confirmed leader at each of the agencies was unlikely to meaningfully impact the administration’s response at the border.
“The rank-and-file men and women out there, they couldn’t care less whether the commissioner has ‘acting’ in front of their name or not. The only thing they care about is the commissioner has their back,” said Mark Morgan, who served as acting commissioner of CBP during the Trump administration and held the same title during the Obama administration.
“Those agencies that don’t have confirmed positions, is there perception then that there are issues? Yeah, that can permeate,” Morgan added. “But I was there for well over a year-and-a-half in an acting capacity and it just wasn’t a problem.”
The lack of confirmed leaders has been a chronic problem for border agencies in particular for the past few years.
Former President Trump did not have a Senate-confirmed Homeland Security secretary or leaders of ICE, CBP or USCIS for more than a year at the end of his presidency, even though hard-line immigration policies were a cornerstone of his agenda.
Experts have cited a range of concerns, such as acting officials carrying out policy directives they won’t be there to see through and whether they even have the authority to implement certain changes.
Under the purview of HHS, Biden has nominated Chiquita Brooks-LaSure as the administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. But at the FDA, which is in the spotlight for approving vaccines and therapeutics amid the pandemic, it’s unclear whether Biden will tap acting Commissioner Janet Woodcock for the role on a permanent basis.
At the Justice Department, the ATF is still waiting for its potential leader to be nominated by the White House. In addition to assisting with investigations into mass shootings and other fatal incidents, the agency is tasked with tracking firearm use and enforcing gun laws.
Gun safety advocates have cited the eventual ATF nominee as playing a key role in efforts to crack down on violence. But there is no indication of who Biden might pick.
“The White House is putting the right people in place, but let’s not forget about ATF,” said one gun safety advocate who attended recent meetings with administration officials. “They’re the main agency that enforces gun laws and regulates the industry. We need a strong director there who’s committed to implementing the right approach.”
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