Just the Facts

Five Facts on the Trump administration’s department vacancies

By Emma Petasis
February 21, 2019 | Blog

The new Congress is in full swing, and the Senate can expect a plethora of cabinet and administration confirmation votes in the upcoming months. With predictions that Senate Republicans will take advantage of the “nuclear option” to fill executive branch positions as well as judgeships, time will tell whether we’ll see significantly more appointments in the bare bones Trump Administration. Here are Five Facts on Trump’s department vacancies.

The Trump administration has experienced staggering shortages across its departments.

The Partnership for Public Service, which has tracked nominations as far back as 30 years, estimates that only 54 percent of Trump’s civilian executive-branch nominations have been confirmed, compared with 77 percent under President Barack Obama at the same point in his administration. Of 710 key positions requiring Senate confirmation, 147 have no nominee, 6 are awaiting nomination, 128 are formally nominated, and 430 have been confirmed. There are formal nominations awaiting action in the Senate for key positions in countless government agencies, including Energy, Commerce, State, Transportation, Environmental Protection Agency, and more. Only 41 percent of the Interior and Justice Departments’ Senate-confirmed posts are filled, and just 43 percent of such positions have been filled at the Labor Department.

Top officials integral to U.S affairs and national security have left office.

Recent departures include former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, among others.  There have also been a bevy of resignations by those focused on foreign affairs including former Defense Secretary James Mattis and the top U.S. Diplomat for Europe, A. Wess Mitchell. Bloomberg reports Mitchell was a key advocate for the administration’s controversial decision to court authoritarian governments such as Hungary’s. The Trump administration has also recently come under fire for its lack of U.S. Ambassadors to key Middle Eastern countries, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Heather Nauert withdrew her nomination to serve as United Nations Ambassador.

Former State Department spokesperson and Fox & Friends host Nauert announced in February her withdrawal from consideration for U.N. ambassador, a position vacated by former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. Nauert cited family considerations and the demands of the job as her reasons for not moving forward with the appointment process.  Historically, the White House has attached enormous weight to who will be chosen to represent the nation to the diplomatic world, The New York Times reports. Ambassadors have included former governors, future presidents, jurists, and more.  It remains to be seen whether President Trump will make filling the post a priority, although U.S. ambassador to the U.N. is seen as one of the few positions that reports directly to to the president. “I think it’s important that there be a perception at the United Nations that the ambassador has access to the president,” Bill Richardson, former U.N. ambassador in the Clinton administration, reported to the Times.

Having numerous “acting” positions presents logistical and legal challenges.

The Federal Vacancies Reform Act of  1998 law stipulates that individuals cannot occupy Senate-confirmed posts in an acting capacity for longer than 300 days during a president’s first year or more than 210 days in subsequent years. This law has affected officials like DVA Acting Deputy Secretary Jim Byrne, who had to be given a new job/job title after serving 210 days, The Washington Post reports.  According to the Post, the act also states that “an action taken by any person who” is not complying with the Vacancies Act “in the performance of any function or duty of a vacant office . . . shall have no force or effect.” This means interim officials are hamstrung in their ability to make long-term decisions because of the temporality of their appointments. Another unexpected logistical challenge stemming from all the vacancies is the choice of secretaries from which the White House could name as “designated survivor” to sit out the most recent State of the Union address.  Ultimately, Energy Secretary Rick Perry was ultimately chosen.

Republicans and departments may be coming up with alternative methods to start confirming more appointees.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is considering moving forward with the “nuclear option” to end Democratic delays on confirmation votes.  Republicans are considering a Senate rules change that would winnow debate time over nominees from 30 hours to two hours. The New York Times reports this could speed up the confirmation process for 80 percent of administration appointees.  Congress isn’t alone in trying to ensure the administration is properly staffed. Some agencies have come up with unusual ways to fill openings on their own. For example, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue appointed three presidential nominees who were not acted upon in the last Congress to leadership posts within the department while they await confirmation.

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