Senate backlog of Biden nominees frustrates White House

The White House is growing increasingly frustrated over the slow pace of Senate confirmations of President Biden’s nominees.

Key positions in Biden’s administration remain unfilled more than seven months into his presidency, with several vacancies threatening to hamper government operations.

Republicans have moved to block some of the nominees, while others are stalled due to uncertainty about whether they have enough support to get confirmed in the 50-50 Senate.

With senators out of town until mid-September, it will be at least another month before any of the nominees languishing in the Senate can get confirmed and fill their assigned position in the executive branch.

The Senate has confirmed just 144 of the 442 nominees submitted by Biden, according to the Partnership for Public Service, a group that works toward improving government effectiveness. Biden lags behind all three of his predecessors when it comes to the pace of Senate confirmations.

“There are plenty of nominees that are somewhere in the confirmation process and they’re just stuck,” said Kathryn Tenpas, a nonresident senior fellow with the Brookings Institution’s governance studies program.

But Biden has also dragged his feet on some nominations, including the heads of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

To bide time, he has tapped officials to serve in an acting capacity to ensure key roles are filled on a temporary basis. But government experts say those officials are a far cry from having a Senate-confirmed occupant who brings certainty and accountability.

“The only place where acting matters is in Hollywood. There are so many acting officers now in the federal government that they should be a branch of the actors guild,” said Paul Light, professor of public service at New York University. “There is no substitute for confirmation.”

The beleaguered Senate process was thrust into the spotlight this past week when Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) blocked the quick confirmation of dozens of State Department nominees before senators were scheduled to start their August recess.

Cruz has slow-walked the nominees in an effort to force the Biden administration to impose congressionally mandated sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany.

“Sen. Cruz will use all leverage and prerogatives he has as a U.S. senator to get the Biden administration to follow the law and implement Congressional mandates to sanction and stop completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. That includes holding State Department nominations that the Biden administration and Senate Democrats have advanced to the confirmation stage,” a spokesman for Cruz told The Hill.

While top Democrats have joined Republicans in blasting the Biden administration’s decision to withhold sanctions on the pipeline, Democratic senators are not going along with Cruz’s blocking tactic.

“This blanket, across-the-board obstruction of the nominations process harms our national security interests by preventing a host of key individuals from starting their jobs,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote in an email to The Hill. “It makes it more difficult to coordinate actions with our allies and only serves the interests of our adversaries.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Wednesday told reporters that the administration is “frustrated” with the slow pace of nominations.

“A number of these nominees who are sitting and waiting are highly qualified,” Psaki said. “A number of them have a lot of Republican support. So, what is the holdup?”

The holds have not been entirely limited to Republicans. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) this past week dropped her hold on a key Education Department nominee, who had been held up while Warren sought assurances that the administration would reform student loan programs.

Biden’s nominee to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is also on shaky ground, in large part because full Democratic support is not guaranteed.

The obstacles to getting a nominee to the floor quickly can range from partisan bickering to filling out mounds of paperwork — from security clearance and background checks to hundreds of Senate committee questions required ahead of any confirmation hearing.

But even when a hearing is completed, and a nominee is voted out of the committee, any senator usually has an opportunity to delay the confirmation vote.

Typically, the majority and minority leader negotiate to limit debate over a nominee, or group of nominees, to allow their confirmation votes to proceed quickly. But if a nominee faces an objection or hold from just one senator, the majority leader faces the choice of invoking a days-long process to push the confirmation vote forward and delay floor time for other legislative priorities.

The Senate has recently been focused on moving the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, which was approved this past week in a major win for Biden. That was immediately followed by floor votes on a budget resolution for the $3.5 trillion package Democrats hope to pass later this year without GOP support.

“The failure to confirm already nominated appointees is a breakdown of Senate rules and comity. They don’t like each other very much,” said Light. “The agenda is jam packed with trillions and trillions in spending, and presidential appointments is not exactly glory-creating legislative activity.”

While the pace of confirmations to executive branch positions has been notably slow, the Senate is off to a fast pace confirming Biden’s judicial nominees.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has teed up votes on four nominees — Biden’s pick for undersecretary of education and three judicial nominees — when the Senate returns to Washington on Sept. 13.

Meanwhile, Biden faces decisions on a number of high-profile nominees, particularly OMB director, a position currently being filled in an acting capacity by deputy director Shalanda Young. She is widely viewed as a front-runner for the permanent position, after Biden was forced to withdraw his initial pick, Neera Tanden, when she had no clear path to confirmation.

Biden has yet to nominate an FDA commissioner, a crucial post as the agency considers whether to grant full authorization to COVID-19 vaccines.

“We’re working on that very hard to make sure we can get it passed,” Biden told reporters Tuesday when asked about the delay.

The acting commissioner, Janet Woodcock, is seen as unconfirmable because of criticism from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), among others, over her ties to the opioid epidemic and more recently the agency’s approval of a controversial Alzheimer’s drug.

One source close to the administration said Biden wants to be certain whoever he chooses for the FDA can garner bipartisan support given the prominence of the position and the need to solidify trust in the agency. But the source also acknowledged that it had been more than 200 days since Biden took office and that administration officials should have been prepared to put someone forward given the agency’s prominence.

Biden has also not named his pick to lead the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, a powerful office within the White House critical to the administration’s regulatory agenda.

While many experts say the Senate’s crammed schedule and 50-50 split is mostly to blame for the backlog, given the large number of nominees Biden has put forward, some argue that the confirmation process itself is broken.

Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, says the number of political appointees — which numbers around 1,200 positions and has grown by more than 50 percent over the last decade — should be reduced.

“Bottom line, we have a system that is designed to fail,” he said. “It’s got way too many Senate-confirmed positions and a Senate that is frankly not designed for managing that volume of confirmation amongst all the other things that they do.”

Tags Biden nominees Charles Schumer Chris Van Hollen Confirmation hearing confirmation vote Elizabeth Warren Jen Psaki Joe Biden Joe Manchin Neera Tanden nominations Senate confirmation Ted Cruz
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