By Paul Hitlin and Christina Condreay

March 10th marked President Joe Biden’s first 50 days in the White House. One of the main tasks for any new president is to fill approximately 1,250 positions in the federal government that require Senate confirmation. Biden has submitted more nominations than his recent predecessors at a comparable time, but the Senate has confirmed fewer of those nominees.

Through his 50 days in office, Biden officially nominated 57 people for Senate confirmed positions. That is more than each of the previous three presidents. Obama nominated almost as many with 55. However, the Senate has only confirmed 17 of Biden’s picks. Each of the three previous presidents had more nominees confirmed, although President Donald Trump had only one more with 18.

There are multiple reasons behind the Senate’s slower pace. The Jan. 5 runoff election in Georgia, which decided party control of the Senate, was certainly a contributing factor. So was the second impeachment trial of Trump, the prolonged negotiation over how power would be shared in an evenly divided Senate, and a variety of other political factors. Regardless, the Senate has an obligation to act quickly to ensure that our government has qualified and accountable leadership in place, especially during times of crisis.

For current information on the status of Biden’s nominations and Senate actions, visit the Biden Political Appointee Tracker which is maintained by The Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service.

By Jaqlyn Alderete

Ethics requirements are now essential for transition teams planning for a new administration and for appointees once a president takes office. These plans ensure that staff members do not personally benefit from their roles or promote agendas that create a conflict of interest.

The 2020 Presidential Transition Enhancement Act codifies the practice of previous transition teams implementing ethics plans that include provisions relating to classified information, lobbying, foreign agents and conflicts of interest. And once taking office, recent presidents have issued executive orders with ethics rules that govern executive branch appointee interactions with the public, provide for transparency and ensure coherence with laws regarding lobbying. If an individual is appointed to a position in a department, they must also abide by ethics rules issued by their own ethics division. 

President Joe Biden’s transition team and his administration both issued ethics requirements and made them publicly available. While each plan centers on ensuring high ethical standards, there are differences which reflect the distinctions between serving on a transition team and serving in public office.

The Biden transition ethics plan called on staff members not to misuse their positions for personal benefit. It also emphasized safeguarding classified information and protecting the reputations of Biden, his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, and other top transition officials. The administration’s ethics pledge emphasizes restoring and maintaining public trust in government by focusing on preventing or resolving conflicts of interest.

Some of the differences in Biden’s two ethics requirements include:  

The goal of ethics agreements for a transition team and an administration is to ensure accountability and integrity among those serving in these institutions. Individuals serving on presidential transitions and in government must understand and follow all ethics rules to ensure their work is transparent and in the public interest.

Editorial credit: Andrea Izzotti / Shutterstock.com

By Paul Hitlin

The withdrawal of Neera Tanden’s nomination to be the director of the Office of Management and Budget has left President Joe Biden with a challenge faced by the previous five presidents – an unsuccessful Cabinet-level nomination early in their tenure. 

Biden becomes the sixth president in a row who has notched at least one unsuccessful Cabinet-level nomination by the end of their first two months in office. Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Donald Trump each had one, while President Barack Obama had three.

The large majority of early Cabinet nominations are confirmed. The three presidents preceding Biden – George W. Bush, Obama and Trump – announced 59 nominations combined for Cabinet-level positions within two months of taking office. Of those, 54 were approved by the Senate and five were unsuccessful.

The few who did not succeed received significant attention. For example, Trump’s initial secretary of Labor nominee Andrew Puzder was withdrawn before a Senate hearing due to concerns over financial issues and personal conduct. Tom Daschle, Obama’s first pick for secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, withdrew before a hearing due to a widely-covered tax controversy. The controversy over the hiring of undocumented immigrants for Clinton’s first attorney general nominee, Zoë Baird, was so widely covered it earned the moniker “Nannygate.” Eight years later, a similar controversy derailed George W. Bush’s first nominee for Labor secretary, Linda Chavez.

As with Tanden, most unsuccessful nominees are withdrawn prior to a Senate vote when it becomes apparent there is not enough support for confirmation. Administrations typically anticipate a candidate cannot win in the Senate and withdraw the nomination before a failed vote takes place. In fact, only one Cabinet nominee has been rejected in a Senate floor vote in the last 60 years – George H. W. Bush’s nominee for secretary of Defense, John Tower, in 1989.

In some instances, presidents have withdrawn nominations before the paperwork is officially submitted to the Senate. Of the five early Cabinet nominees named by George W. Bush, Obama and Trump who did not get confirmed, three were never actually received by the Senate.

As in the case of Tanden, failed nominations represent a temporary setback for the administration, unleash political jockeying among those promoting replacement candidates, and leave a department or agency without a Senate-confirmed leader. In this case, the Biden administration will have to proceed with its preparation of a new budget and be delayed in crafting a new management agenda without the head of OMB in place.  

While this process creates complications for a president, it is one envisioned by the framers when they gave the Senate its advise and consent role on presidential nominations. Like other presidents, Biden will choose a new nominee, reach accommodation with the Senate and seek to make up for lost time.

By Drew Flanagan

Slightly more than one month into his administration, just over half of President Biden’s 15 Cabinet secretary nominees have been confirmed. At a comparable time, the previous four presidents had 84% of their Cabinet picks confirmed. In fact, President George W. Bush had his entire Cabinet in place and President Bill Clinton had all but one position filled.  

The pace of confirming Cabinet secretaries historically influences the staffing of other leadership positions such as deputy secretaries and undersecretaries. Recent presidents have rarely nominated anyone to fill sub-Cabinet positions until the agency head has been confirmed. Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump collectively announced 274 sub-Cabinet nominations by the end of their first 100 days in office. Of these, only 18 or just 7% were sent to the Senate before the confirmation of their agency head.

This practice reflects deference toward the Cabinet secretaries and provides them with an opportunity to participate in the selection of officials who would work with them.

However, the current slow pace of confirmations has forced the Biden administration to operate differently. The White House has already submitted 22 sub-Cabinet positions to the Senate, 19 of which were sent before the Cabinet secretaries were confirmed (86%). Biden’s decision to take a fresh approach is likely the result of his transition team anticipating Cabinet confirmations taking longer than usual.

It is worth noting that Senate action in 2021 has been hindered by various highly unique events, including the Senate run-off election in Georgia, impeachment proceedings and negotiations over the Senate power-sharing agreement. Even so, the negative impacts of these delays remain significant, extending far beyond sub-Cabinet nominations. Without confirmed Cabinet secretaries, important decisions get postponed and government employees face uncertainty – problems that are magnified now as the country deals with the pandemic, an economic crisis and many other domestic and foreign policy challenges.

Overall, the Biden administration is ahead of the pace of nominations set by previous presidents. Biden has submitted 55 nominations to the Senate, 15% more than any of the previous five presidents at a comparable moment. Despite the high pace of personnel announcements, the Senate has confirmed just 11 of the 55 submitted nominees, including eight of 15 Cabinet secretaries.

Filling key administration jobs has taken on added significance due to the vulnerabilities posed by the crises facing our country. The sooner Biden’s Cabinet secretaries and other nominees are confirmed, the sooner they can get to work.

By Drew Flanagan, Carlos Galina and Paul Hitlin

As President Joe Biden continues to staff his administration, he has named acting officials to fill some of the 1,200 positions that require Senate confirmation – a power granted by Congress to presidents ever since George Washington’s first term. These temporary, acting officials play a vital role in maintaining continuity and providing leadership during times of change.

The rules governing the use of acting officials are found in the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998, which spells out who is eligible to be selected and how long they can serve. In most instances, the law places a 210-day limit on how long someone can execute the functions of a position, although the limit is extended to 300 days for vacancies during a president’s first year.

While acting officials are always significant, their roles may be magnified now due to the Senate’s slower than normal pace of confirming Biden’s nominees. For a detailed list of the nominees and their status,  see the Biden Political Appointee Tracker which is updated daily by the Partnership for Public Service and The Washington Post.

The following is a list of acting officials named by the Biden administration for top positions at the 15 Cabinet agencies. The administration has not named acting officials for every position. The information was compiled from agency websites and public news reports.

This blog was updated on February 4, 2021.

Fifteen days into President Joe Biden’s administration, the Senate has confirmed just five of his 15 statutory Cabinet secretary nominees. At a comparable time, the Senate had confirmed 90% of the Cabinet secretaries for Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama combined.

By Paul Hitlin

Choosing 15 officials to fill their Cabinet is among the most important decisions new presidents make. The Senate plays a crucial role in considering and confirming those nominees. This year, the Senate is taking longer than it has for most other new administrations. At this time of multiple concurrent global and national crises, having a well-qualified Cabinet has taken on a new sense of urgency.

Fifteen days into Joe Biden’s presidency, the Senate has confirmed only five of 15 Cabinet secretary nominees. At a comparable time, President Bill Clinton had 13 nominees confirmed, President George W. Bush had 14 and President Barack Obama had 11. The official Cabinet consisted of 14 positions until 2002 when the Department of Homeland Security was established, and the Cabinet expanded to 15. Each president has the option to expand their Cabinet with additional members, but those positions are not part of the Cabinet as established by legislation. The Senate has confirmed one of Biden’s expanded cabinet of 23 officials – Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines.

The delays are not due to the lack of speed of Biden’s announcements. The official beginning of Biden’s transition was hampered by the delay in ascertainment – the formal decision made by the General Services Administration which triggers the government’s official preparation for a handover of power. However, Biden still announced nominations quickly. He publicly named 12 of his Cabinet choices by the end of 2020 and all 15 by Jan. 7, 2021 – about two weeks prior to his inauguration. In fact, Biden announced more nominations for Senate-confirmed positions during the time between his election and inauguration than any other president-elect.

The Senate delays began even before Biden was sworn in. The Senate can hold hearings for nominees prior to the president taking office to speed up the confirmation process. All of Clinton’s Cabinet secretary nominees had a preliminary hearing prior to Inauguration Day. The same was true for all but one of Bush’s nominees and 11 of Obama’s 14. By contrast, only five hearings were held for Biden’s picks prior to his inauguration, all of which took place the day before Biden was sworn in as president.

The confirmations of President Donald Trump’s initial Cabinet nominees took longer. Only four of his choices were confirmed within two weeks of his inauguration. However, Trump’s experience represents the exception rather than the rule. Trump’s transition team changed leadership immediately following his 2016 election, which slowed the vetting of candidates. Additionally, Trump announced nominees for secretaries of Veterans Affairs and Agriculture just days before his inauguration. Trump’s first choice for Labor secretary withdrew and other nominees did not have their paperwork completed or faced various controversies.

The reasons behind the Senate’s sluggish pace in considering Biden nominees are unclear. The Jan. 5 runoff election in Georgia, which decided party control of the Senate, is certainly a contributing factor. So is the impending impeachment trial and the prolonged negotiation over how power would be shared in an evenly divided Senate. The delayed ascertainment and refusal of the Trump to acknowledge the election results were additional factors that served as disincentives for the Senate to move forward with Biden’s nominees.

Regardless, the Senate has an obligation to act quickly to ensure that our government has qualified and accountable leadership in place, especially during times of crisis.

Now that a power-sharing agreement has been reached and committee leadership is becoming clear, the Senate has an opportunity to accelerate its consideration of Biden’s nominations. Precedents set by previous transitions suggest the Senate can – and should – move faster to fill critical vacancies so that government can serve the public effectively.

By Emma Jones

Every president is responsible for making about 4,000 political appointments, including members of the Cabinet, senior agency leaders, White House staff and lower-level appointments. Despite the importance of these jobs, there is no up-to-date source of information about who holds these positions, which jobs are vacant or the status of Senate confirmations.

To address part of this problem, the Partnership for Public Service and The Washington Post launched a webpage in December to track more than 750 of President Joe Biden’s Senate-confirmed political appointments. Positions in the Biden Political Appointee Tracker include Cabinet secretaries, deputy and assistant secretaries, chief financial officers, general counsels, heads of agencies, ambassadors and other critical leadership jobs.

For the first few months of Biden’s term, the Partnership will update the tracker on a daily basis.

Most of the information regarding nominations and the Senate’s confirmation process comes from Congress.gov, the official website for federal legislative information. We also rely on the “United States Government Policy and Supporting Positions,” known as the Plum Book, that is published by Congress every four years and includes information about Senate-confirmed positions. We also rely on information on resignations and informal appointee announcements from publicly available sources such as news stories and government websites.

This isn’t the first time the Partnership and The Washington Post have collaborated. In December 2016, we launched a similar tracker to follow the progress of President Donald Trump’s nominees to key Senate-confirmed positions. This tracker provided timely data illustrating how the Senate confirmation process has slowed to a crawl, with the average confirmation taking twice as long under Trump as it did during President Ronald Reagan’s administration. Data on the Trump administration appointees will remain accessible.

The Partnership recommends presidents fill the top 100 Senate-confirmed positions by the end of April – if not sooner – with an additional 300 to 400 by the August recess. By Inauguration Day, the Biden transition team had announced 52 nominees for Senate-confirmed positions – more than each of the previous three presidents. Now, it is the Senate’s responsibility to expedite confirmation of qualified nominees.

For the next four years, the Biden Political Appointee Tracker will serve as an important accountability tool to keep the public informed about the status of important, Senate-confirmed  government jobs.

For Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama, 71% of their initial Cabinet secretaries were confirmed by voice vote or unanimous consent

By Carlos Galina and Drew Flanagan

For new presidents, having Cabinet secretaries in place as soon as they take office is crucial to ensure the continuity of the government, especially during times of crisis. The Senate has understood the need for a new president to be ready to govern, giving recent incoming chief executives significant latitude by confirming their Cabinet choices quickly and often with little or no opposition.

Under Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, 71% of initial Cabinet secretaries confirmations were approved by the Senate using voice votes or unanimous consent agreements. Almost every initial Cabinet nominee during the past four decades has been approved, most facing little objection.

Voice votes and unanimous consent agreements are used by the Senate to advance legislation and confirmations quickly. Unlike most Senate votes, these procedures do not require individual senators to record their vote and are reserved for issues where there is a wide consensus and no doubt about the outcome. The extensive use of voice votes and similar agreements demonstrate how little congressional opposition recent presidents have faced regarding their first choices to head the executive departments.

The lack of Senate objections extends to the two administrations preceding Clinton as well. Even though the Senate did not use voice votes for the initial Cabinet nominations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, votes against their picks were rare. Reagan’s choices were confirmed by an average margin of 90 votes, and five were approved unanimously. Furthermore, nine of the 10 of the Cabinet nominees confirmed under H.W. Bush were approved unanimously. The tenth, Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis Sullivan, was approved by a vote of 98-1.

President Donald Trump’s initial Cabinet nominees were more controversial than those of previous presidents and therefore faced more Senate opposition. None were confirmed by voice vote or unanimous consent. However, Trump’s experience represents the exception rather than the rule. Because Trump’s transition team leadership changed immediately following the 2016 election, Trump had a late start identifying and vetting candidates. Even with the delays, the Senate generally gave Trump the leeway to choose members of his Cabinet. All 15 Cabinet secretaries who received a Senate vote were confirmed, with nine of those receiving at least 60 votes. Trump’s initial choice for Labor Department secretary, Andy Puzder, was submitted to the Senate, but withdrew before receiving a vote.

As President-elect Joe Biden prepares to enter office, the Senate will soon consider his choices for important leadership roles. The frequent use of voice votes during the past 40 years demonstrates how the Senate can support the transition process by confirming Cabinet choices quickly. A return to this historical precedent would help ensure the Biden administration is prepared to manage the significant challenges currently facing our country.

By Max Stier, President and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service

In the aftershock of the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, I wanted to share my reflections as our country continues to collectively process what transpired.

Like so many of you, I was appalled and sickened by the violence that erupted in the hallowed chambers of our Capitol. The attack on our democracy was a moment of heartbreak and a loss of faith in some of our elected leaders whose rhetoric led to the actions that were laid bare on Wednesday.

We have experienced many contentious elections in the 230-year history of our great nation. Yet, there has always been a peaceful and orderly transition of power, and this has been a hallmark of our democracy and vital to the safety of the public. To see it under threat is shocking and disheartening.

Yet, the peaceful transfer of power is not in itself enough to sustain our democracy. There also must be an effective transfer of power, which is now threatened.

Under ordinary circumstances, the effective transfer of power is incredibly difficult given the scale, complexity and shortness of time to prepare to govern, and these are by no means ordinary times. The Trump administration has been slow to cooperate, and the pandemic has added urgency to what is at stake and made the transition process more difficult given that much of the work must be done virtually.

The most important element of a transition is getting a new leadership team in place quickly, up-to-speed and working well together with the professional career workforce. President-elect’s Joe Biden’s team has done an exceptional job in preparing to govern, but the hardest work is just beginning.

The Senate has a critical role to play in quickly reviewing and voting on the new president’s nominees. According to research by the Partnership’s Center for Presidential Transition, presidential appointees requiring Senate confirmation face a process that is longer, harder, more public and more complex than their predecessors faced 40 years ago. The Senate must move swiftly and across party lines to confirm qualified appointees.

Getting this right is essential to solving our country’s biggest problems and rebuilding trust with the people our government serves. To do so will require reimagining the responsibilities of our government leaders. The core expectation must be for our leaders to be motivated and held accountable for serving the public interest rather than their own private or partisan interests.

During his 1863 Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln made an impassioned plea for the country to heal from the wounds of the Civil War, asserting that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Our government, wholly owned by the people of this nation, can achieve great things. Our government defeated fascism, made factories safe places to work, eradicated polio and measles, provided pensions and healthcare to seniors, cleaned up our air and water, put astronauts on the moon, invented the Internet, and is now on the frontlines battling the COVID-19 pandemic.

The work of strengthening our democracy and repairing and rebuilding our institutions does not belong to one party or person. It requires each of us, including our elected leaders and political appointees, to play a critical role. Recognizing that and acting on it is part of what it means to be an American.

This piece was originally published on the Partnership for Public Service’s blog, We the Partnership.

Filling key health-related positions was not a priority during recent presidential transitions. By their 100th day in office, only 28% were filled under Trump and 35% under Obama.

By Christina Condreay

As medical professionals and essential workers begin to receive the coronavirus vaccine, the nation enters a new phase of the pandemic. Yet even with this positive development, the country faces thousands of deaths from the virus each day and will likely be dealing with the pandemic for months to come. With the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden only days away, the new administration will need key health officials in place quickly to coordinate the government’s response and assure continuity during the change in leadership.  

Biden’s plan for a COVID-19 response includes providing 100 million vaccines in 100 days and reopening schools safely by May. To achieve these goals, he must have personnel in key decision-making positions. Recent history, however, shows that under the last two presidents, most health-focused jobs were not among the earliest filled. In fact, under Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama, only about one-third of leadership positions responsible for coordinating health efforts were confirmed by the Senate within 100 days of taking office.

To study the priority given to these roles, the Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition identified 50 Senate-confirmed positions relating to public health and emergency response. The list is comprised of positions held by individuals on the current coronavirus task force, health-related nominees already announced by Biden and the positions of those who participated in the 2016 transition pandemic tabletop exercises. Additionally, the Center examined job descriptions for more than 400 positions across 22 agencies. The final list of 50 includes agency heads and Cabinet department secretaries, as well as assistant and undersecretaries responsible for less visible but important agency subcomponents.

Pandemic response positions during the Trump administration

Of these 50 key positions, only 14 were filled during the first 100 days of the Trump administration (28%). When the pandemic began in early 2020 – and Trump had been in office for three years – only 28 of these 50 positions or 56% were filled with a Senate-confirmed official.  Even though the Senate confirmed these officials, significant turnover occurred during Trump’s first three years. Between Inauguration Day and March 1, 2020, 20 Senate-confirmed officials in pandemic response positions had resigned.

The lack of Senate-confirmed officials was due in part to Trump’s slow pace of nominations. During Trump’s first year in office, he submitted nominees for just 27 of the selected positions. In his second year, Trump submitted nominations for only 11 more. Another cause of the delays was the length of time it took the Senate to vote on nominations.

All told, 42 of the 50 health-related positions were filled at some point during the Trump presidency, even if not by the start of the pandemic. On average, the Senate took 99 days to confirm those nominations.

Pandemic response positions during the Obama administration

The Obama administration filled a few more of these health-related jobs early in its first year, but only by a small margin. During the first 100 days, 35% of these positions had a Senate-confirmed official, including four holdovers from President George W. Bush’s administration. There was a notable difference, however, in staffing these positions during Obama’s second year. By the end of Obama’s second year in office, the administration had sent nominations for 39 of the 50 positions to the Senate.

Due to key holdovers from the Bush administration and five recess appointments, a permanent official served in 49 of the health-related positions by the end of Obama’s third year. The Trump administration added a Senate-confirmed position, the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, which is included in our list. On average, the Senate took 71 days to confirm officials for those positions during the Obama administration.

Conclusion

An effective strategy to fight the pandemic requires a smooth transition of power and continuity in leadership. Although many health-related positions were not filled quickly during the last two administrations, the Senate and Biden administration have a joint obligation to expeditiously nominate and confirm officials for these critical roles to deal with the current crisis.