Aside from being a growing source of frustration for Democrats and foreign governments, the stonewalling by Republicans of President Joe Biden’s diplomatic nominees is disturbing Senate experts and former ambassadors for what it forebodes about the future of the institution and the basic functioning of U.S. foreign policy.
At this point in his presidency, Biden has had a much smaller fraction of his country ambassador nominees confirmed than any of his recent predecessors. Only envoys to eight countries — Austria, Canada, Israel, Kosovo, Mexico, New Zealand, Singapore and Turkey — have been confirmed.
Meanwhile, ambassadorial nominees to China and Japan approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are being denied a floor vote by a small number of GOP senators seeking leverage for their demands that Biden change course on certain foreign policy issues. And nominees to represent the United States in New Delhi and Berlin are still waiting on confirmation hearings.
In fairness to senators, the Biden White House also has been slow in naming and sending its ambassadorial picks for major allies and key countries of concern to the Senate. The committee is still waiting to formally receive the nominations for envoys to the United Kingdom, Australia, South Korea and Russia, according to the political appointee tracker maintained by the Partnership for Public Service with The Washington Post.
In comparison, President Donald Trump at this point in his term had some 40 ambassadors confirmed, 32 of whom were processed by unanimous consent on the Senate floor, according to numbers provided by Democratic senators.
“Democrats had major objections to Donald Trump’s foreign policy, but by this time nearly 40 ambassadors had been confirmed,” said Senate Foreign Relations member Tim Kaine, D-Va., at a committee business meeting in early November. “What a poor message that sends about U.S. disinterest in the world. It sends a sign to nations that we’re interested in them when we send them an ambassador, and when we can’t even bother to do that, it sends a sign that we’re not interested.”
Republicans point out that Democrats repeatedly held up diplomatic nominations during the Trump years, sometimes for months or even years.
But it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, either at the quantitative level or the quality level, according to interviews with multiple experts who study the Senate.
Democrats and sometimes members of Trump’s own party, such as former Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., held up the confirmation of several Trump nominees.
Some of those picks were regarded by committee members on both sides of the aisle as lacking the proper experience for the roles for which they were nominated. Others were blocked over their failure to disclose potential financial conflicts of interest or sexual harassment allegations made against them. There were even cases of nominees being under active criminal investigation.
With the shoe on the other foot, Republicans have thrown sand in the gears at every step in the nomination process: delaying the scheduling of Foreign Relations confirmation hearings, delaying the committee vote and then delaying the floor votes. This largely holds for even noncontroversial nominees.
Notably, two Republican senators, Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri, are objecting to nearly every nominee the Foreign Relations Committee sends to the floor by preventing the customary use of the “unanimous consent” process for confirming batches of noncontroversial appointees — which the vast majority of State nominees almost always are. That means individual votes for each nominee have to be scheduled for the Senate floor, taking up valuable legislative time.
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There are roughly 250 positions in the State Department, including country ambassadors, that require Senate confirmation — one of the highest numbers of any agency. There are some 50 diplomatic nominees who have been advanced by the Foreign Relations Committee but haven’t been able to get a floor vote yet.
Typically, some number of career envoys appointed during the previous administration will be asked to stay on during the transition to a new administration. But at some point, each of the nearly 190 countries in the world should have a Senate-confirmed ambassador appointed by the sitting administration.
This leaves Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer with two undesirable choices. One is using up scarce floor time to hold process votes on diplomatic nominees rather than using that time to tackle major legislation. The other is to wait for a national security crisis to occur that can be used to publicly shame blockading senators into lifting their holds to allow some nominees to move through.
That’s what happened in September following the Taliban’s unexpectedly swift takeover of Afghanistan. Cruz allowed the unanimous consent process to be used to fill several vacant State Department posts he had been blocking, including the assistant secretaries of State for intelligence and research and for South and Central Asia.
“It’s bad for the Senate, it’s bad for the country, it’s bad for international relations,” said Carl Tobias, a constitutional law professor at the University of Richmond who studies the confirmation process. “But that’s just where we are, and it’s hard to know if there is any going back.”
Cruz and Hawley are thought to have presidential aspirations and can use their blanket holds on diplomatic nominees as a means of ginning up grassroots attention for their staunch opposition to the Biden administration. Neither has gotten much flak from their Republican colleagues for their holds — though it remains to be seen whether the GOP grassroots will reward them.
But the national security issues the senators point to as justification for their holds are either deep in the policy weeds or are issues on which Republican voters themselves are divided over.
In Cruz’s case, it’s Biden’s exercise of a waiver authority, which Congress passed into law, that lets the White House get out of imposing sanctions on a new natural gas pipeline to Germany that will economically benefit Russia. Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel appears to have convinced Biden to let the nearly finished pipeline be completed.
Meanwhile, Hawley has vowed not to lift his holds on nominees until Biden’s Defense secretary, secretary of State and national security adviser all resign — a very unlikely scenario — because the Missouri senator disagrees with their handling of the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“What is happening now is inhibiting the ability of the United States of America to do its work. I appreciate that Republicans in the Senate want to try and undermine this administration. They don’t like the outcome of the past election, but it’s over,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., the only female member on the Foreign Relations Committee. “China is making a pitch that authoritarianism is the best alternative because democracy doesn’t work because they’re looking at our Congress and saying ‘democracy doesn’t work because people aren’t willing to work together.’”
In addition to objecting to unanimous consent votes on the floor, Cruz has taken advantage of a long-standing committee member privilege to systematically slow down committee votes on the vast majority of nominees. Cruz has maintained he won’t cease the practice until Biden imposes sanctions on the German-Russian Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline.
Requests for comment to Cruz’s office were not returned.
By tradition, any committee member can “hold over” any formally noticed agenda item until the next business meeting of the panel. The practice is intended to give members additional time to try to get greater clarity on an issue or have their concerns with it addressed.
However, Cruz’s blanket exercise of the privilege to slow-walk nominees has crossed the line, Democratic committee members argue, many of whom used November’s business meeting to argue their case for why he should lift his holds.
“What I’ve seen in this committee and others is an effort to switch ‘advise and consent’ to not voting ‘no’ but just delaying action in an inappropriate way,” Kaine said. “And why delay action [rather] than vote ‘no’? Because you can avoid accountability for it. A ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote you’ve got to explain.”
Cruz did not respond to the Democratic senators’ criticisms at the meeting.
While such a state of affairs is less and less of a surprise when it comes to Senate Foreign Relations proceedings, it didn’t happen overnight.
The panel used to be one of the most powerful committees in Congress, according to Linda Fowler, a government professor at Dartmouth College who focuses on Senate oversight of foreign policy. “It was the most prestigious. It was the most sought-after. You really had to prove your legislative chops before you could get on it. Now, particularly on the Republican side, nobody wants to be on it.”
Committee prestige is measured, Fowler said, by how hard it is to get on a committee and how frequently lawmakers want to get off it.
“There still is some notion that if you want to be president, you should have spent some time on the committee. It attracts people, but they are using it as a ticket,” Fowler said. “Ted Cruz is sort of symptomatic of the problem, that it is now one of the most polarized committees in Congress.”