President Donald Trump’s administration has been simultaneously splashy and slow to take shape, hindered by its own rocky transition and congressional Democratic defiance that shows no sign of easing.
Six nominees for Cabinet-level positions have been confirmed by the Senate. More than two dozen other Cabinet-level seats remain vacant, the slack only partly picked up by acting secretaries, including in the Departments of Energy, Education, and Health and Human Services.
The sluggish pace of approvals is unusually slow. It shows no signs of easing, as Senate Democrats vow to continue stalling tactics that could last weeks.
The tardiness, in turn, has consequences that can magnify over time.
“Anytime you have an acting anything, you have someone who serves not just at the pleasure of the president, but with a degree of trepidation and a question of their legitimacy,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. “Having somebody permanent gives them an ability to speak about the future; otherwise they’re just speaking about today.”
Ultimately, Trump will have about 4,100 administration positions to fill, including about 1,240 that require Senate confirmation. So far, only about three dozen nominees have been announced, according to a database maintained by the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service and The Washington Post.
The former chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Issa joined multiple other lawmakers in citing the apparently thin vetting given Trump’s controversial Jan. 27 executive order restricting refugee admissions as an example of the dangers of short staffing. The executive order is being challenged in multiple lawsuits across the country.
The lack of confirmed top-level leadership has apparently complicated subsequent efforts by lawmakers to alleviate the executive order’s impacts on their constituents.
The office of Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., for instance, has been seeking relief for a Los Banos, California, family whose 12-year-old daughter has been stuck in Djibouti. For days, they reported hitting brick walls and unhelpful State Department responses.
“That just doesn’t suffice,” Costa spokesperson Kristina Solberg said Friday.
An example of not having all the people in place, both confirmed and not confirmed, Cabinet and sub-Cabinet, really would be the executive order.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif.
In many cases, being shorthanded makes it impossible for the federal government to take action, particularly if it’s too controversial. Only two of the five seats on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission are filled, for instance, and the resulting lack of a quorum puts all but the most routine decisions out of reach.
Some government wheels, though, never stop turning. Even with so many departmental vacancies, the Feb. 4 Federal Register listing various executive branch proposals, meetings and actions spanned 215 pages.
In just the past week, for instance, the Consumer Product Safety Commission proposed revising fireworks safety rules, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission started an environmental study of a proposed Texas pipeline extension and the Defense Department announced a $400 million military contract with Kuwait.
“You’re talking about ordinary bureaucratic cases,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. “The bureaucracy just continues to function.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was sworn in Wednesday. Next week, the Senate is set to take up more Cabinet-level confirmations, starting Tuesday with Education Department nominee Betsy DeVos. In a 52-48 vote along party lines Friday, the Senate agreed to end a Democratic filibuster intended to delay action on the Michigan billionaire.
“The nominee for the secretary of education is one of the worst nominees that has ever been brought before this body for a Cabinet position,” declared Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., adding that Republicans were trying to “rush her through.”
The Democratic base, in particular, appears dead set against DeVos, with calls jamming Capitol Hill phone lines and social media accounts lit up to demand massive resistance. Some of it seems to foreshadow a grass-roots Democratic insistence that the party’s senators filibuster the big nominee coming down the tracks, Judge Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court.
Next up are Republican Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, nominee for secretary of health and human services, and Steven Mnuchin, chosen for treasury secretary. Democrats are expected to attempt filibusters and procedural maneuvering is likely to mean debates on each will stretch for a day or two.
In a bit of responsive parliamentary theater, Senate Democrats boycotted several confirmation hearings in recent days. Republicans, in turn, changed committee rules in order to advance Trump’s nominees to head the Environmental Protection Agency, the Treasury Department and the Department of Health and Human Services.
“I think Chuck Schumer has shown time and time again through this confirmation process with the Cabinet that he’s more interested in politics than actually moving the government along,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Wednesday. “And I think that is troubling.”
Until the Cabinet secretaries are in place, moreover, the selection of their key deputies, who often take responsibility for day-to-day operations of the department, typically remains up in the air. Only three deputy secretary nominations have been announced, for the Departments of Commerce, Justice and Homeland Security.