An unprecedented number of open jobs in government has led to a historic gap in governmental processes and preparedness and a partisan blame game
They are the diplomats who implement foreign policy, commissioners who regulate trade and the economy, administrators responsible for airport security and space exploration, officials who will respond to the next natural disaster and the person charged with running the next US census.
However, an unprecedented number of some of the most crucial jobs in government have yet to be filled by a presidential appointee. As a result, former federal officials warn, a historic gap has developed in governmental processes and preparedness, even as a partisan war rages over whom to blame.
Government watchdogs say the Trump administration missed an early window to send a critical mass of executive nominations to the Senate, which is responsible for reviewing and confirming 1,242 such nominations.
The administration has responded sharply, accusing Democrats in the Senate of slow-walking nominations out of a desire to foil the president.
Whats the real story?
While the current, Republican-led Senate has been slower than average in confirming Trump attendees, the president has been even slower to send nominations to Congress, said Max Stier, president of the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service.
The Trump administration is way behind prior precedent and certainly behind what we need in order to effectively be able to run the government, Stier told the Guardian. You cant play the game effectively if you dont have your team on the field.
Trump had made only 61% of the nominations (226) that Barack Obama had made (373) by 19 July of the first year of their respective administrations, according to figures compiled by Stiers group. Trump still lags behind other recent presidents, although he rates slightly better when compared with George W Bush (Trump made 67% of his nominations), Bill Clinton (81%) and George HW Bush (87%).
It is important to get nominations in early, explained Stier, because it becomes more difficult for the Senate to prioritize confirmations as the term progresses and other matters take over such as multiple runs at healthcare reform or raising the debt ceiling.
Were at six months into the Trump administration, Stier said. This is not just any six months, its the first six months, its the time in which you would have the best opportunity to actually move your own agenda forward, because events crowd out your capability for doing things very quickly. Therefore that front-end time is vital.
The Trump administration issued a defense of its rate of nominations in a press release earlier this month blaming Democrats for taking unprecedented measures to slow nominees in an effort to prevent president Trump from following through on the policies for which the American people voted.
On average, it has taken the Senate 45 days to confirm a Trump nominee, compared with 37 days for Obama, 33 for George W Bush, 29 for Clinton and 31 for George HW Bush.
The comparison with George HW Bush is even more striking considering that Trump has the advantage of a Senate under the control of his own party, while Bush came into office facing a Senate with a whopping 10-seat Democratic majority. The Republican Senate under Trump is taking on average about half as long again to confirm executive nominees, than the Democratic Senate under Bush did 28 years ago.
While Trump places blame for the relative slowness of the Senate at Democrats door, some of his supporters go further. Conservative grassroots organizer Tom Carroll of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, said Trump had slowed his nominations because his enemies in the Republican party and the media had shown their willingness to collude with Democrats to block the nominations.
We can throw around statistics all we like thats just a bunch of crap, because the bottom line is that Obama had both houses of Congress in his favor at the time, he didnt have the mass media against him, he didnt have his own party working against him, Carroll said.
Why would he [Trump] keep throwing those nominations up, when theyre not even approving those he puts up?
True to form, Trump has floated more than one explanation for the slow pace of nominations. He also has said that neglecting nominations is his way of shrinking government.
A lot of those jobs, I dont want to appoint, because theyre unnecessary to have, Trump told Fox News in February. You know, we have so many people in government, even me. I look at some of the jobs and its people over people over people. I say, What do all these people do? You dont need all those jobs.
The argument is not very persuasive, said Stier, because Trump is not eliminating the positions, he is just not filling them and the positions in question, a mere fraction of total government employees, still require federal officials to fill them on an acting basis.
There is a legitimate case to be made for de-layering government, for reducing the number of political employees, but you have to do that intentionally, Stier said. Failing to nominate people in a reasonably quick fashion isnt the same as intentionally deciding, saying that you want to remove certain jobs from government so that you can make it more streamlined. The latter would be I think welcomed.
Instead, the vacancies threaten to impede essential government functions. With a lack of trade commissioners, multi-billion-dollar mergers may stall or proceed without proper review. With a lack of defense department officials, soldiers overseas may be slow to receive marching orders. Chapters of tax and budget policy may go unwritten. Securities fraud may go unpoliced, labor complaints may go unaddressed, and the crucial midlevel relationships that bind the United States to foreign allies may deteriorate.
A deeper problem with the federal system for political nominations involves the unusually high number of political appointees the United States relies on more than 4,000 of them for each new president, compared for example with the British system, in which even the most powerful civil servants remain mostly unchanged from one premier to the next.
If Trump truly intends to shrink the federal government, he may have to find a better way than by slow-walking a few thousand nominations. As numerous as they are, political appointees account for a small percentage of the governments 2.1 million executive branch civilian employees.
That last statistic, from 2014, is courtesy of the federal office of personnel management, which currently lacks a director.