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Newsletter | Revolving Door Project Newsletter | August 16, 2023

Delayed Confirmation of Biden Nominees Both Common and Costly

Confirmations CrisisGovernanceGovernment Capacity
Delayed Confirmation of Biden Nominees Both Common and Costly

Republican Senators’ contempt for governance and the American people can be seen in their protracted, pointless blockades of high-level appointments.

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On July 25, 2023, military leaders in Niger, along with members of the Presidential Guard,  enacted a coup against President Mohamed Bazoum. Led by General Abdourahamane Tchiani, a Nigerien military officer and self-appointed President of Niger’s military junta, coup plotters detained the democratically-elected President Bazoum, as well as members of his family, threatened to kill him in the event of any military intervention in the coup, and most recently put him on trial for treason

Despite widespread rumors of an emergent coup in the country, the United States was reportedly “blindsided” by it, and scrambled to respond. Of course, American intel regarding the actual political atmosphere of the country was hindered in no small way by the lack of State Department personnel staffing embassies in the region. 

“Though the U.S. had spent hundreds of millions of dollars transforming Niger into its top military outpost in the Sahara, it didn’t have an ambassador in the country,” The Wall Street Journal reported. “The Biden administration didn’t formally nominate one until eight months after the previous ambassador left, only to face opposition from Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.), who has put holds on State Department appointees until the White House releases intelligence he believes could show Covid-19 leaked from a Chinese lab.” Sen. Paul’s political hostage-taking of presidential appointees saw the (now confirmed) U.S. Ambassador to Niger, Kathleen A. FitzGibbon, languishing before the Senate while awaiting final confirmation on the very day the coup occurred. 

This most recent example in Niger is not alone in demonstrating how this broken confirmation system—and its manipulation by bad-faith Senators—has genuine consequences for the basic functionality of our government, and for matters of national security. The State Department’s review of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, for example, specifically cited a lack of Senate-confirmed officials in the State Department and at embassies as essential context for understanding why the withdrawal played out the way it did. The report asserted that having confirmed officials in place is “especially” important in overseas positions, “where those serving as chargé may not have the access to senior host government officials needed to advance U.S. interests fully.” 

There are still dozens of ambassadorial nominees awaiting Senate confirmation, months after their nominations. Some positions are fully vacant; others are staffed by career diplomats, while official nominees await confirmation. Such is the case with Biden’s nominee for U.S. ambassador to Turkmenistan, for instance, who has been awaiting Senate confirmation for over a year. That can’t be helpful as the U.S. (the world’s second-largest methane super-emitter after Turkmenistan) is currently engaging in talks with officials in Turkmenistan about trying to reduce the genuinely mind-boggling amount of methane emissions produced by the country, with emissions from two of Turkmenistan’s major fossil fuel fields alone outstripping the emissions of the entire United Kingdom.

And of course, the confirmation crisis extends well beyond just the State Department. Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) has been holding up promotions of military personnel for months, impacting at least 301 high-level positions, and hamstringing the Pentagon’s policy office. Tuberville is using the blockade to protest the Pentagon’s post-Dobbs policy of paying for the travel costs of service members seeking abortions, and using a series of procedural loopholes to grind all progress on confirmations to a halt. 

Such delays are achieved by Senators like Tuberville refusing to grant “unanimous consent agreements” for nominations subject to Senate approval. Unanimous consent is an administrative tool in the confirmation process that essentially allows for the waiving of structured debate over a uniform or non-controversial nominee. Historically, huge swaths of nominees (including 50 percent of civilian nominees) have cleared committee with these consent agreements. 

Without unanimous consent, though, the time required to dedicate to each individual confirmation is exorbitant: two hours of valuable Senate floor time is required for post-cloture debate for each individual candidate. Last month, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) said of Tuberville’s blockade “that voting on the more than 260 military nominations through the regular procedure would take 27 days with the Senate working ‘around the clock’ or 84 days if the Senate worked eight hours a day.” As nominations continue to pile up, that number is only growing. 

Paul and Tuberville aren’t the first or only bad-faith Republican Senators abusing the confirmation process in order to incapacitate the government. Republican Senators Josh HawleyTed CruzTom CottonPat Toomey, and others have all manufactured confirmation crises at some point or another going back years, and their efforts have resulted in top offices across the federal government still being left empty well over two years into President Biden’s term.

A single Senator should not be permitted to unilaterally sabotage the government and its staffing. Thankfully, there are a myriad of steps that Democrats can take to modernize Senate confirmation rules, streamline the confirmation process, and otherwise change the arbitrary rules Republicans are now routinely using as a political weapon. As Eleanor Eagan explored for Talking Points Memo in 2021, through simple Senate rule changes Democrats could use their majority in that chamber to place limits on the amount of time that can be committed to post-cloture debate, to allow for the grouping of nominees together over a set number of debatable hours, and more.

In short, Democrats have options with respect to Senate rules—options that they have so far willingly abdicated. Senate Democratic leadership seems to prefer emphasizing their status as victims rather than utilizing the aggressive tactics Eleanor laid out to solve the problem. Biden and Schumer appear to be hoping that Tuberville’s own Republican colleagues will rein him in. That’s not a winning strategy; that’s the absence of a strategy. 

The costs of blockades like these are enormous and have often prevented the government from acting in the public interest. You may remember the long saga of Gigi Sohn’s failed confirmation to the FCC, hindering the agency’s ability to “implement Biden administration goals such as restoring net-neutrality, expanding national broadband access, making and promoting digital equity, and otherwise ensuring the internet works in the interests of the public.” Confirmation blockades led by coal baron Sen. Joe Manchin also created partisan gridlock at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commision (FERC), stalling desperately needed climate guidance from the regulator, and eventually forcing the replacement of Biden’s more climate-conscious nominee for FERC chair with the industry-friendly, now acting, chair Willie Phillips. 

Now years into their nominations, and amidst a national housing crisis, crucial leadership at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) still awaits final confirmation, undermining their department’s capacity to address housing prices that continue to spiral out of control. (For more on the systemic challenges facing HUD, and the government capacity crisis that goes hand in hand with these debilitating confirmation blockades, check out our colleague Fatou Ndiaye’s recent piece in Democracy Journal: “Bloated Government? The Problem Is the Opposite.”)

When crucial offices are left without leaders, or when precious floor time in the Senate is captured by frivolous, performative debate instead of real policy issues, it’s the public that ultimately suffers. The system doesn’t have to work like this. And Senate Democrats could still choose to do something about it. 

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Want more? Check out some of the pieces that we have published or contributed research or thoughts to in the last week:

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Image: Sec. of State Antony Blinken departs Niamey, Niger March 17, 2023. (Official State Department photo by Chuck Kennedy)

Confirmations CrisisGovernanceGovernment Capacity

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