Photo credit: Department of the Interior
The Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition has been tracking Senate-confirmed presidential appointments since late 2016. This year, we tracked and analyzed how President Joe Biden’s first year in office compares with the previous three presidents, examining his nominations and confirmations from Jan. 20, 2021, to Dec. 31, 2021. The following data analysis represents nominations for all civilian positions including ambassadors, judges, marshals and U.S. attorneys.
For an interactive list of key civilian nominees and their statuses, see the Biden Political Appointee Tracker which is updated each weekday by the Partnership for Public Service and The Washington Post.
Photo credit: Shutterstock
By the end of the 2021 calendar year, Biden nominated 644 people for presidentially appointed Senate-confirmed positions, more than President Donald Trump had in the same time frame (555) and slightly fewer than President Barack Obama (653) and President George W. Bush (677).
Photo credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Despite nominating roughly the same number of appointees as Bush and Obama, far fewer of Biden’s nominees were confirmed in the same time frame. Congress has confirmed 355 of Biden’s nominees. At a comparable time, Congress had confirmed 505 of Bush’s and 450 of Obama’s. Trump, by contrast, had slightly fewer with 317.
Photo credit: Architect of the Capitol
During the president’s first year, it took an average of 103 days for nominees submitted by the Biden administration for Senate-confirmed positions to get confirmed. This is longer than the average for nominees submitted in the first years of the previous six administrations and nearly three times as long as those submitted during President Ronald Reagan’s first year.
Photo credit: Department of Defense/U.S. Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith
In Biden’s first year, the Senate confirmed only 55% of his nominations.1 While a small number were withdrawn by the president, 118 were “returned” at the end of the Senate’s session—meaning the president would either have to nominate that person again in the next session or nominate someone else. And 171 are still awaiting a vote as of Jan. 4, 2022. By contrast, 75% of Bush’s first-year nominees were confirmed, compared with 69% for Obama and 57% for Trump.
According to a Senate rule, nominations are returned to the president automatically when they have not been confirmed or rejected at the time the Senate adjourns at the end of a congressional session (which roughly correlates to the calendar year) or when the Senate adjourns for a period of more than 30 days. Nominations can be held over, though, if the Senate by unanimous consent agrees to suspend the rule. Nominations that are returned to the president are no longer pending before the Senate and therefore are not eligible for consideration. When the Senate convenes in a new session, the president can resubmit the nomination of the same individual to a position or can choose to put forward a different nominee for the position.
Photo credit: Department of State
Photo credit: Department of Defense/U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jack Sanders
As we wrote in a blog post marking the 20th anniversary of the attacks, a transition to a new presidential administration is a unique moment of vulnerability for our country. In 2004, the bipartisan 9/11 Commission suggested delays in confirmations could undermine the country’s safety since a lack of appointments could significantly disrupt national security policymaking.
For all presidents, ambassadors play key roles in representing the United States abroad.
Our government works best when it has a full team of capable and committed individuals serving in career positions and political appointments. For the past decades, the number of Senate-confirmed positions grew from 779 to 1,237, a 59% increase between 1960 and 2016. This increase—along with challenges in the confirmation process—have resulted in the confirmation times for nominees taking longer every year, and vacancies across agencies increasing significantly. These trends highlight serious barriers to our government’s effectiveness, responsiveness and agility. Our analysis of Biden’s progress with nominations and confirmations in his first year indicates that the current number of positions needing Senate confirmation continues to lead to a confirmation logjam that grows each year. The holdup has limited the ability of administrations to fill critical roles and undermines the effectiveness of the American government.
Since 2001, the Partnership for Public Service has contributed to making government more effective and efficient. In 2011, the Partnership supported the Presidential Appointment Efficiency and Streamlining Act, which reduced the overall number of Senate-confirmed positions by 163. Last year, the Partnership’s Center for Presidential Transition, the premier nonpartisan source of information and resources for presidential candidates and their teams, published Unconfirmed. In that report, we present seven approaches for rethinking Senate-confirmed positions, favoring longer-term alternatives while preserving the Senate’s oversight and constitutional role. From converting Senate-confirmed positions to noncareer Senior Executive Service positions or political appointments that do not need Senate confirmation, to eliminating redundant and consistently vacant appointments, the approaches are meant to start a conversation—one that is aimed at resetting the appointments process while maintaining its core principles and intent. Only through cooperation from the executive and legislative branches can the appointments process be reformed from the unsustainable status quo.
Senior Manager, Center for Presidential Transition
Senior Research Manager
Digital Design Associate
Senior Writer and Editor
Digital Design Associate
Loren DeJonge Schulman
Vice President, Research and Evaluation
Vice President, Government Affairs
Director of Policy
President and CEO
Additional thanks for the contributions of current and former Partnership staff including Christina Condreay, Kiana Karimi, and Wesley Knowles.
Header photo credit: Department of Health and Human Services