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Where’s the ambassador to Ukraine?

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stretches into another week, the world has yet to hear any statements about the war from America’s ambassador to Ukraine. The ambassador also did not make any comments prior to the incursion. The ambassador’s silence is not due to diplomatic concerns, threats of violence, or any other concern; rather, it is because there is no ambassador to Ukraine.

Though President Biden has been in office for over a year, no one has been confirmed as the ambassador to the country involved in arguably the most dangerous conflict since the fall of the Soviet Union. This does not appear to be a problem that will be solved anytime soon. Not only is no one confirmed, but no one has been nominated to this position.

{mosads}There are other unfilled positions in government that could be useful during this tumultuous time. For example, as the landscape of global energy rapidly shifts, there is no nominee to serve as Assistant Secretary for Energy Resources in the State Department. Though President Biden recently warned private businesses to be prepared for cyber attacks, there is no nominee to serve as the Assistant Secretary of Cybersecurity, Energy Security and Emergency Response in the Department of Energy. 

In total, among almost 800 positions tracked by the Partnership for Public Service that require Senate confirmation, more than 60 percent are unconfirmed, and more than 100 still await a nominee. 

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This is not a problem unique to the Biden administration, but it is a problem that is getting worse. A study published in 2021 found that between 10 percent and 40 percent of Senate-confirmed positions were vacant stretching from the Carter administration through the Obama administration. Further complicating this are increases in the number of positions that require appointments and in the time required to get nominees confirmed. In 1960, the number of positions needing Senate confirmation was 799; that number stood at 1,237 by 2016. The time to confirm a nominee more than doubled in length between the Reagan and Trump administrations. 

The lack of appointees can be problematic. Those who are appointed have short terms normally dictated by the election calendar; increasing delays in confirmation lead to even less time in office. This means that those in charge will not be around for long at all. Their shorter time horizons could impact their long-term planning or goals because they likely will not be around to see ideas come to fruition. 

What can be done? Administrations could do a better job of preparing for presidential transitions and having more nominees ready by the time of inauguration. Although there is a flurry of activity following an election, transition or campaign teams could spend more time getting these sorts of affairs in order so that the president has a team ready to serve come January.

{mossecondads}Reducing the number of appointed positions is a solution that potentially could save money and increase performance. The Congressional Budget Office found that setting a cap on appointees could save almost $100 million annually. A different study found that job satisfaction is higher among civil servants who serve under career bureaucrats and not presidential appointees. Perhaps reducing the number of appointees could lead to better performing government employees. 

As we head toward the midterm elections that do not look good for Democrats, confirmation will become more difficult. Staffing the government is an essential duty of any administration. Delays caused by cloture votes in the Senate may be out of the administration’s hands, but they at least could have nominees for the positions. The Biden administration should prioritize having people in place and stridently work toward fulfilling this goal. 

Michael E. Bednarczuk, Ph.D., is a professor of public administration at Randall University and director of its Master of Public Administration program. Follow him on Twitter @mebednarczuk.

Tags ambassador nominees biden administration Joe Biden Political appointees

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