Nearly a month into his presidency, President Donald Trump’s cabinet is not quite empty. But compared to previous White Houses, it’s nowhere near full.
As of Thursday — 27 days into his presidency — 13 of Trump’s nominees had been confirmed, with secretaries of Commerce, Energy, and Housing and Urban Development among those still outstanding.
By contrast, during the first seven days of President Barack Obama’s presidency alone, Obama saw his secretaries of Agriculture, Education, Energy, Interior, VA, State, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Treasury and the EPA confirmed, according to the Partnership for Public Service, which tracks such data.
President George W. Bush saw most of those posts filled within 10 days of taking the oath of office.
For decades, presidential cabinet confirmations were, for the most part, pro forma: Hold a hearing, have a vote, swear in the new secretary. The failure rate for Supreme Court justices historically has been about 18 percent. The failure rate for cabinet nominees? About four percent.
So why has the confirmation process dragged on as long as it has? Although it is easy to jump to an answer of hyper-partisanship — and it’s hard to deny its impact — it’s not the only reason, according to those who have watched this play out in this and past administrations.
Part of it, they say, are the selections themselves. Many are new to public service and unvetted, and some have resisted filling out the paperwork that has been a staple of the confirmation process.
“If you go back historically and look at cabinet nominees, frequently they are public servants with expertise in that particular area,” said Ohio native Lauren C. Bell, a professor of political science at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va. “Trump has tended toward people he knows in business.”
And those nominees, she said, “tend to have financial portfolios that are much more complicated than the average public servants.”
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who has voted against eight of the 13 Trump nominees voted on so far, said troubling questions have surfaced in the backgrounds of some of the nominees.
Brown said he voted against Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price in part because of stories about him buying and selling health care stocks while he worked on committees with jurisdiction over health care. Steve Mnuchin, he said, misled the Senate Finance Committee on whether the bank he led ever participated in a controversial practice of signing mortgages without reviewing them.
“Eight years ago Price would’ve dropped out,” he said. “Eight years ago Mnuchin would’ve dropped out.”
But Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said Democrats are “using the time they have under rules and they are using every second of that. They have the right to do that. But I don’t think it’s right for the country.”
Portman and others say the resistance to the nominees is an unwelcome change from a long tradition of allowing a president to assemble his own team. Portman said he voted for Mel Watt, Obama’s pick for Housing and Urban Development, and Obama Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch out of respect for Obama’s right to assemble his own cabinet. In fairness, Democrats have offered a similar deference to Trump’s Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao and Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin, among others, voting them in with minimal resistance.
Tom C. Korologos, a strategic advisor at the law firm DLA Piper who has helped shepherd more than 300 nominees through the confirmation process dating back to the Nixon administration, said the process has become far more divisive.
“What’s happening today – I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “Democrats lost track of who won the election.”
‘We set up a war room’
Korologos has helped both Democratic and Republican administrations with nominees. He’s even helped two vice-presidents: Gerald Ford and Nelson Rockefeller, who were appointed. When he asked the latter what he had in his background that might prove embarrassing, Rockefeller, known for his wealth, sheepishly admitted that he wasn’t as rich as people believed. “He was worried about what his peers would think,” he said.
Later, he asked another nominee to reveal what might embarrass him in his past. The nominee flushed and sputtered: “How would anyone know that?” He later withdrew his name. “To this day, I don’t know if he was an axe murderer or what,” Korologos said.
Still, he said that Trump’s vetting of some of the nominees “leaves a lot to be desired.”
He mentioned the shaky performance of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos during her nomination hearing, in which it appeared she was unprepared. DeVos was confirmed, but it took Vice President Mike Pence to break a 50-50 tie in the Senate.
When Korologos worked with failed Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, as well as Justices Antonin Scalia and Chief Justice William Rehnquist, “we set up a war room. We dug through every civic association speech or college editorial.”
Lost in the debate over how long the confirmation process is taking is what impact the vacancies will have on the government in the interim. Trump has about 700 positions to fill subject to Senate approval, including undersecretaries and deputy secretaries, according to University of Akron political science professor David B. Cohen.
“I would argue those positions are just as important,” he said. “Those are the people actually running the department, as opposed to the cabinet head, which is a nice shiny toy but that doesn’t do a whole lot.”
David Eagles, director of the Center for Presidential Transition at the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, said it’s important to fill positions quickly to have a fully functioning government.
“You need to have your entire team on the field to execute effectively,” he said.
Source: Dayton Daily News