More than five months into the new Obama administration, hundreds of key executive positions, across all departments, remain unfilled.
As of May 31, only 151 of the 1,100-plus Senate-confirmable positions had in fact been confirmed by the Senate. To be sure, many of that total are confirmable to largely honorific posts. But if we simply boil it down to serious policymaking or implementing positions, the fill rate is still less than 25 percent. Some people no doubt will point out that this is still a better record than other recent presidencies; George W. Bush, for example, had only 129 nominations confirmed by the Senate by May 31 of his first year. But as I have pointed out before, the record of recent presidents in getting their administrations up and running across the board is very poor.
Of course, some of the problems lie within the administration itself, including longer vetting times as a result of new and expanded ethics rules; other delays are built into the contemporary nomination and confirmation process, including cumbersome paperwork at many levels and a ridiculous security clearance process (not ridiculous for Cabinet posts or anything involving sensitive issues, but overkill for many others).
But there is another arena for delay and denial as well: the Senate. Thirty-one important nominations have cleared all the other hurdles and are ready for votes in the Senate. They include a number of key positions, from legal counsel at the State Department to head of the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department to head of regulatory affairs at the Office of Management and Budget to undersecretary for national protection and programs at the Department of Homeland Security to head of the Census Bureau to undersecretary of State for arms control.
Three nominations did make it through last week, all defense-related: Lt. Gen. Douglas Fraser as head of the U.S. Southern Command, Adm. James Stavridis as supreme allied commander for Europe and head of the U.S. European Command, and, most importantly, Gen. Stanley McChrystal as the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. But none of the others, including some who have been twisting in the wind for many weeks, seems close to confirmation.
Why? The Senate is often very opaque in this area, but it certainly appears that Republicans have put individual, or perhaps blanket, holds on all these nominees. One of the reasons for opaqueness is the widespread and unpunished refusal of Senators to come clean with their holds most remain anonymous, which is frankly outrageous.
A few of these nominees are controversial, including Dawn Johnsen at Justice and Robert Groves at the Census Bureau. But most of the controversial nominees, including Harold Koh as legal counsel at State, about whom I have written before, have clear support of more than 60 Senators. None is under a cloud because of scandal or questions about their intellect or qualifications. Many seemed clear to go and then found themselves in indefinite limbo.