Key government positions are taking too long to fill. Both the White House and Senate Democrats are to blame.
Earlier this week, the White House released a statement citing Senate Democrats as the main reason for the Administration’s inability to fill key government positions. Titled ‘President Donald J. Trump’s Nominations Face Needless Obstruction,’ the release hints at an opposition party unable to move past its 2016 election loss and willing to threaten US national security for political purposes. The document justifies its claims of obstruction by citing several numbers comparing the current nomination process to that of President Obama’s experience in his first term.
At first glance, the numbers presented are striking and show a clear double standard with the previous administration. The document highlights that the Senate has only confirmed 23% of President Trump’s 216 nominations. By contrast, President Obama had 69% of his 454 nominations confirmed by the August recess of his first term. The White House also mentions that a cloture has been invoked on 30 of President Trump’s nominees, as opposed to only 8 for President Obama’s in the same timespan.
The numbers seem clear, but the reality becomes more opaque once the data is properly broken down and contextualized.
One glaring contrast is in a number of candidates nominated. Considering the 216 and 454 nominations cited, President Trump has appointed less than half the number candidates for positions than his predecessor did before the August 2009 recess. The White House uses the term ‘nomination’ loosely here. President Trump has only formally nominated — submitted the proper vetting and documentation to the Senate — candidates to 186 key positions, with 47 confirmations and 139 formal nominations awaiting approval. Up to this point the Administration, which has 1,200 positions needing confirmation, has yet to designate candidates to two-thirds of the 564 key positions requiring Senate approval.
In addition to the numbers listed, omitted statistics further discredit the President’s assertions. While the official release details nomination numbers of several agencies, it makes no mention of the Department of State (DOS), which makes up the largest portion of key roles needing confirmation. With 124 key DOS positions to fill, only 22 have been formally nominated. Additionally, the President has yet to formally nominate candidates to 163 of the 188 Ambassadorial positions.
Another contrast made between President’s Trump and Obama is related to the cloture process. Cloture is the procedure by which the Senate can end a filibuster, limiting the consideration of a nominee to 30 additional hours before a vote is required. The White House statement explains that this onerous process has occurred substantially more now than during the first months of the Obama Presidency. While true, this is not the most apt comparison, as cloture was harder to enact in 2009 than it is now. A better comparison is the period following President Obama’s re-election when Congress subjected 150 of his nominations to cloture votes from 2013-2014.
To its credit, the Administration has greatly increased the rate of presidential nominations over the past month. The President is right in pressuring Congress to approve as many of his formal nominees as possible before the recess in a few weeks.
Regardless, the number of nominations is still well below that of previous administrations and the statistics cited in the press release are misleading at best. Propagating a narrative of Democratic obstructionism makes for a better explanation of the hiring delay than the potential reality of the Administration failing to attract, vet and nominate qualified candidates.
Speaking “Truth” to Power
While the numbers cited by the Trump Administration are largely cherry-picked, their concerns of obstruction by the opposition are valid.
The appointee confirmation rate has been uncharacteristically low, and much of the voting has occurred strictly down party-line. When faced with criticism, members of the Democratic Party frequently reference statistics on obstructionist behavior by Republicans during the Obama Presidency. This deflection does not justify the efforts being made by Democrats to impede the current President from filling essential government positions.
While Senate Democrats are able to delay the confirmation process, they are largely powerless in preventing nominees from ultimately being confirmed. For this, Democrats have only themselves to blame. It was in late 2013 that the Senate, led by Democrat and then-Majority Leader Harry Reid, voted to reduce the threshold for a cloture on presidential nominees from 60 votes to a simple majority.
With midterm elections looming, the Democratic Party is presenting 2018 as a referendum on the President. Maintaining an anti-Trump strategy means that Democratic legislators have little incentive to work with the executive branch, including in confirming nominees. The less the President is able to accomplish, the greater the likelihood Democrats gain congressional seats.
This marketing of the current administration as woefully incompetent and unable to govern has tangible implications on governance. It leaves little room for compromise or bipartisan action on either side of the aisle, resulting in continuous political gridlock and electorate dissatisfaction.
In spite of its support within the Party, the viability of this strictly anti-Trump approach remains to be seen. Under this strategy, Democrats lost considerably in the 2016 elections and 2017 special elections. Aside from flirtations with progressivism, the messaging from the Democratic Party remains largely unchanged.
Not all is as it Appears
Despite assertions by the Republicans and Democrats, neither party holds a monopoly on the truth. While numbers emote validity and certainty, they are easily transformed, obfuscated and manipulated. A closer look at the presidential nomination statistics shows that both the President and Senate Democrats are to blame for the hiring delay. It is in the best interest of the country that the confirmation process moves forward.