February 26, 2021

Why Delays in Confirming Biden’s Cabinet Matter: Sub-Cabinet Positions Are Rarely Filled Until the Cabinet Secretary Is Confirmed

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.